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Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman

March 5, 2017

An insider’s perspective on the life and influence of Israel’s first native-born prime minister, his bold peace initiatives, and his tragic assassination

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More than two decades have passed since prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995, yet he remains an unusually intriguing and admired modern leader. A native-born Israeli, Rabin became an inextricable part of his nation’s pre-state history and subsequent evolution. This revealing account of his life, character, and contributions draws not only on original research but also on the author’s recollections as one of Rabin’s closest aides.

An awkward politician who became a statesman, a soldier who became a peacemaker, Rabin is best remembered for his valiant efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and for the Oslo Accords. Itamar Rabinovich provides extraordinary new insights into Rabin’s relationships with powerful leaders including Bill Clinton, Jordan’s King Hussein, and Henry Kissinger, his desire for an Israeli-Syrian peace plan, and the political developments that shaped his tenure. The author also assesses the repercussions of Rabin’s murder: Netanyahu’s ensuing election and the rise of Israel’s radical right wing.

Itamar Rabinovich is president of The Israel Institute (Washington, D.C., and Tel Aviv); Global Distinguished Professor, New York University; and Non-Resident Distinguished Fellow, Brookings Institution. He served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States and chief negotiator with Syria from 1992–1996. He lives in Tel Aviv, Israel.

“Yitzhak Rabin was a soldier and a statesman who fought for the security of Israel and for a concept of peace for all nations. Itamar Rabinovich has written a thoughtful and extraordinarily comprehensive account of a significant leader.”—Henry A. Kissinger

“Itamar Rabinovich has written an insightful book on Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s charismatic warrior-statesman who valiantly dedicated himself to the cause of peace in the Middle East. As the head of Rabin’s team during Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations and as Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Rabinovich was at Rabin’s side during key moments in his country’s history. I recommend his book to all those interested in peace between Arabs and Israelis.”—James A. Baker, III

“This highly informative and tightly-packed biography is undergirded by a deep personal knowledge of Rabin’s strengths and flaws as a leader and a sure command of Israel’s military and diplomatic history.”—Derek Penslar, Harvard University and the University of Toronto

"Puts the complexities of [Rabin's] career and achievement in fresh perspective."—Kirkus Reviews

"This well-written, easily digestible biography also provides useful insights into the inner workings of Israeli politics."—Booklist


Bill Clinton: If Rabin had lived, the world would be a different place

Ex-president says resurgent nationalism preceding 1995 assassination was a ‘microcosm’ of what is now happening ‘full bloom’ globally

BY TIMES OF ISRAEL STAFF March 10, 2017, 6:35 pm

Former US president Bill Clinton warned on Thursday that the assassination in 1995 of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and the preceding uptick in nationalism was a “microcosm of what is coming full bloom across the world today.”

Speaking at a Brookings Institution event on the occasion of a book launch for Itamar Rabinovich’s “Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman,” Clinton said he remained convinced that if Rabin had lived, the world would be a different place today, in part because a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians would have been achieved long ago.

A Life with Consequences

by Dennis Ross

Jewish Review of Books, Spring 2017, pp. 27-29

In 1986, when I first met Yitzhak Rabin, he was the defense minister in Israel’s national unity government and I was a member of President Reagan’s National Security Council staff. In the ensuing years, during the Bush and Clinton administrations , I met and talked to him often, especially when I held senior positions, including that of the lead American negotiator on the Arab–Israeli peace process. Whenever I read another book about him, I naturally do so with a curiosity informed by my own set of intense experiences with the man who was one of Israel’s greatest leaders .

I have to admit that in approaching a new biography of Rabin, I did not expect to gain a great deal of new insight into the man and the country he served. And yet, much to my surprise, I did so in reading Itamar Rabinovich’s Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman. Rabinovich is a distinguished historian of the Middle East, but he, too, brings his personal history with Rabin to the biographical task. In 1993, Rabin appointed him to be Israel’s ambassador to Washington, during which time he also served as Rabin’s negotiator with the Syrians. His book tells a very revealing story that ties the arc of Rabin’s life to the course of Israel’s history from the pre-State period to the 1990s.

In the chapter Rabinovich devotes to Rabin’s early years in Mandate Palestine, we meet a shy 15-year-old who attempts to explain himself to a friend in his youth group: “I may have a sense of inferiority because I do not have the confidence that the members are interested in me.” A few years later, after he graduated from the Kadoorie Agricultural School, the shy youth’s loyalty to his peers and their cause outweighed any careerist inclinations. He passed on the chance to study water engineering in California and enlisted in the Palmach. Soon establishing himself as an expert military planner, tactician, and operator, the 26-year-old Rabin commanded the Harel Brigade in the fight for Jerusalem during Israel’s War of Independence. This experience left him profoundly convinced of, among other things, the need for military preparedness. “I was bothered by the question,” he later wrote in his memoirs, “why has this war caught us so ill prepared? Was it necessary?” From the armistice talks in Rhodes in 1949, in which he was a participant, he learned from Israel’s surrender of its leverage in negotiations with Egypt that it should never deal with the Arabs in a collective setting but only bilaterally.

Rabin’s complicated relationship with David Ben-Gurion and his problems with Moshe Dayan prevented him from rising through the ranks of the IDF as rapidly as his military performance might otherwise have led an outside observer to expect. Although Ben-Gurion had promised to name Rabin chief of staff, it was his successor, Levi Eshkol, who finally did so, in 1963. The two worked well together until the trying weeks in May of 1967 before the Six-Day War—when Rabin found himself caught in an impossible position between a divided Israeli cabinet led by a hesitant Eshkol and a highly combustible general staff. Driven to exhaustion, and even put—briefly—out of commission, Rabin quickly rallied and implemented the spectacularly successful war plan for which he was largely responsible.

Justly celebrated as a hero, Rabin decided to leave the military and enter politics, but not directly. Feeling that he needed a period of transition, he asked Eshkol to appoint him to be Israel’s ambassador to the United States. Serving in that position during the last year of the Johnson administration, he did not get on very well with President Johnson or those in Dean Rusk’s State Department, who were pushing for complete Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai and not requiring from Egypt a peace treaty in return. In a tart memo written on November 15, 1968, which Rabinovich quotes, National Security Advisor Walt Rostow wrote, “Rabin feels we’ve changed our position and undermined Israel’s bargaining position. The fact is that this has been our consistent position for over a year, but the Israelis have turned off their hearing aids on us. As for undermining their position, we can’t afford to go along with their bazaar haggling if we’re going to have any chance of peace.” The advent of the Nixon administration turned things around.

Rabin forged a close relationship with Nixon’s national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, and the two together regularly circumvented both the State Department and Israel’s foreign minister, Abba Eban. Eshkol’s successor as prime minister, Golda Meir, both saw Rabin’s value and at times felt he exceeded his authority, acting as if he were already a minister. She felt he got out in front of what she was ready to do, especially with respect to an interim pull-back from the Suez Canal in response to Anwar Sadat. Rabin, for his part, was often frustrated by the inability of the Meir government to explain what it was ready to put on the table in order to achieve peace. By the end of his tenure in Washington, their relationship had soured, with Rabin believing that the prime minister had not fulfilled a promise to make him a minister. He returned to Israel in March 1973 ready to run for the Knesset elections on the Labor Party list.

The 1973 war was traumatic for Israel. The surprise attack, the Arabs’ use of oil as a weapon, the terribly high casualties, and the widespread sense of vulnerability after the conflict—so different from the exultation after 1967—all combined to darken the mood and shake the faith of the Israeli public. When the Agranat Commission issued its report on Israel’s intelligence failings at the beginning of the war, Golda Meir was not called on to resign, but massive demonstrations against the government spearheaded by reserve soldiers forced her to do so 10 days later. Rabin bore no stigma from the war, having been outside the government at the time; what’s more, his high standing after 1967 made him an attractive leader for the Labor Party. Since that party then dominated the Knesset, it was able to pick a successor to Meir without a country-wide election. Though Rabin had not established a political network within the central party machinery, Pinhas Sapir was a major power broker within Labor and his backing made it possible for Rabin to defeat Shimon Peres in a contest for the party leadership. On June 3, 1974, he became the prime minister of Israel.

One of the fascinating features of Rabinovich’s book is his discussion of the problems Rabin faced during his first term as prime minister and the degree to which these problems were bound up with his bitter rivalry with Peres. The tension and clashes between the two leaders limited the effectiveness of the Rabin government and contributed to the general sense that the Labor establishment had been in power for much too long—factors that would contribute to the Likud victory in 1977.

Rabinovich also highlights Rabin’s inability to stand up to the settler movement—even though he publicly called the settlers “a cancer in the social and democratic tissue of the state of Israel, a group that takes the law into its own hands.” This failure can be attributed to the weakness of Rabin’s government, and the fact that Peres and others within Labor supported the settlers at this time. Kissinger and King Hussein would have liked a limited disengagement on the West Bank to parallel the ones that had been implemented with both Egypt and Syria, and Rabin saw that such an arrangement could help Jordan replace the PLO as the representative of the Palestinians, but he still judged his domestic position to be too weak to pull off such a plan. Rabinovich repeatedly depicts Rabin as having foregone opportunities to effectively counteract the settler movement as well as the PLO.

It is not that Rabin was wholly ineffective during his first stint as prime minister; he concluded the second interim agreement that set the stage for peace with Egypt and also gained deep strategic commitments from the United States. Moreover, the spectacular Entebbe rescue operation was vintage Rabin—he did not rush to judgment and consistently challenged the military to come back to him with a plan that could be expected to work. (Though this operation restored a great deal of confidence in Israel’s military daring and effectiveness, it, too, was followed by skirmishes between Rabin and Peres over who should get credit for it.)

But Rabin was not skillful at handling the press, the coalition, or his party. On the brink of the 1977 elections he resigned after the revelation of his wife Leah’s (then illegal) overseas bank account—which seemed to fit into a narrative which included far more egregious instances of corruption among the Ashkenazi Labor elite and connected this to their distance from Mizrahi voters, those Jews of Middle Eastern origin who felt neglected, disadvantaged, and treated as outsiders by the Israeli establishment. In 1977, these voters turned to Likud and have rarely paid heed to Labor since, except when its leaders have had unimpeachable security credentials.

Rabin, of course, did have them. Following the Begin- Sharon debacle in Lebanon— which Rabin had warned against—Labor regained enough of its strength to participate in national unity governments, and Rabin served as defense minister from 1984 until 1990. His image, authority, and credibility were restored. When Peres brought down the national unity government in 1990 in response to Yitzhak Shamir’s opposition to an American formula for Palestinian representation at an Israeli– Palestinian dialogue, and then failed to create a Labor-led government, Rabin was displeased. Always the pragmatist, he believed that it was still possible to work with Shamir, and that it was, in any case, better to be in the government than outside of it. Yet he himself was the ultimate beneficiary of Peres’s move, since he soon regained control of the Labor Party and then led it to an electoral victory over Likud in the 1992 elections.

Rabinovich’s discussion of Rabin’s second term as prime minister is written from an insider’s perspective and makes for especially interesting reading. Determined to learn from his mistakes back in the 1970s, Rabin believed that the First Gulf War had brought about a unique moment in the Middle East, and focused his efforts on making peace with the inner circle of Israel’s neighbors in order to better position Israel for the threats he expected to arise from Iran and Iraq.

This discussion of Rabin’s peace policy reminds me of the adage that where you stand depends on where you sit. Rabinovich feels the Clinton administration was let down when Rabin decided to go with the Oslo breakthrough, concentrate on the Palestinians, and put the Syrian track on the back burner. The Americans were dismayed, he writes, that Rabin did this after putting in their pocket a statement of his readiness to withdraw fully from the Golan Heights if Israel’s needs were met. From my vantage point, as the State Department’s special Middle East coordinator, things looked rather different.

When Secretary of State Warren Christopher presented Rabin’s position to the Syrian president more as a commitment than a hypothetical possibility, Assad’s response was not to treat it as a historic breakthrough but as a reason to begin to bargain over Israel’s needs. As far as Rabin was concerned, Christopher had gone too far. “He felt,” Rabinovich writes, as if “the rug had been pulled out from under him.” Assad had pocketed what had been conveyed without giving anything back. Rabinovich is certainly correct when he says that Christopher (and I) believed that Assad had in fact responded favorably. But that was because we expected him to begin to negotiate and try to grind the process out—Assad was never one to move in leaps. We were not, however, disappointed by the Oslo breakthrough—only surprised because Rabin had consistently downplayed it with us, even during the meeting in which Rabin made what we understood to be a historic move with respect to Syria.

In August 1993, I went with Christopher to meet Peres and Norwegian foreign minister Johan Holst at the Point Mugu naval air station in California to hear about the breakthrough with the PLO. In asking Christopher to meet them, Rabin again conveyed some skepticism about the breakthrough and wanted to know what we thought of it—perhaps because he had kept us in the dark about it. Rabinovich, who was also at Point Mugu, is also right to say that Peres was clearly nervous about what our response would be. But there was no holding back on our part. We understood that an existential conflict between Israelis and Palestinians was crossing a historic threshold—even if, as I would tell Christopher at the time, the Declaration of Principles were more aspirational than tangible, and the hard work would await all of us.

True, we wanted to preserve the Syrian track, but, in reality, so did Rabin. Part of his pattern was to use each track as leverage against the other, which was perhaps a reflection of what Rabinovich describes as the lesson that Rabin learned from the unhappy experience of negotiating with the Arabs as a collective in 1949. This is a larger point that Rabinovich makes in this very readable and important book: Rabin was a realist who saw peacemaking not as the source of security but as a further development that needed to be based upon security. He understood that demographics argued for separation from the Palestinians. In 1994, he told me that he would build a separation fence. Even though he preferred to negotiate an agreement, he could not count on reaching one with the Palestinians and, one way or another, there would be a partition of the land.

In his book’s prologue, Rabinovich writes: "Most deaths are simply the end of a life. A political assassination, however, is unlike any other form of death. It is a death that acquires its own significance; a death with consequences. An assassination is not only the terminal point of a person’s life but also the starting point for a new reality the death itself has created."

In his epilogue, Rabinovich discusses the new reality created by Israeli extremist Yigal Amir’s assassination of Rabin. He writes with characteristic sobriety of the peace that might have been, but he does so with a sense of possibility, not certainty— much like Rabin, in this respect. Rabinovich is wistful only insofar as he seems to say that the landscape of the Israel Rabin tried to save may be changing now as a coalition heavily influenced by religious nationalists and settlers is governing the country.

One thing is certain: Rabin could not have made peace by himself. It takes two sides to conclude a genuine peace agreement, and I am dubious that the Palestinians are up to the task. But I am also confident that Rabin would not have let Israel become a binational state. Whether Israel will have the political leadership to prevent that outcome is something that only time will tell.

Dennis Ross is the author of several influential books, most recently Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.–Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which was awarded the 2015 National Jewish Book Award for history. Ambassador Ross was U.S. point man on the peace process in both the George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations. He also served in key foreign policy roles in the Reagan and Obama administrations. He is currently counselor and William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

New biography tries to answer the ‘What if?’ hovering over Yitzhak Rabin’s legacy

Jewish News Service (, December 5, 2016

By Rabbi Jack Riemer

Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin embodied the qualities of his generation: toughness, gruffness and idealism.

He started out intending to be a farmer. The realities of life in Israel in the 1940s forced him to become a soldier. The frustrations of trying to run an effective army amid never-ending political intrigue forced him to become a politician. Then the realization that the army could not guarantee Israel’s security forever forced him to become a peacemaker. Just as only an anti-communist, like President Richard Nixon, could reach out to China, so too only a man totally committed to Israel’s security, as Rabin was, might have been trusted by the Israeli people to make the concessions and sacrifices that peace would require. We will never know what would have happened had Rabin lived, but the man who killed the prime minister also killed the Arab-Israeli peace process he was working on.

Every year for the last 20 years, on the anniversary of his death, young people gather by the thousands at the place where he was assassinated—now called Rabin Square—to mourn his loss and the lost opportunity for peace. “What if?” is an impossible question to answer. We will never know, but the forthcoming biography of Rabin by Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s former ambassador to the U.S. and chief negotiator with Syria under Rabin, makes the case that the prime minister would have taken the risks for his concept of “peace with safeguards,” no matter what opposition stood in his way.

Rabinovich tells the story of Rabin’s three careers: soldier, politician and peacemaker. He recounts how Rabin never gave an order to attack until he had first considered every risk and examined every detail to make sure that the attack would succeed. He tells of how Rabin, as commander of the entire Israeli army, would often interview ordinary soldiers after an attack in order to gain their perspective on what went right and what went wrong. Rabinovich explains that Rabin came out of a socialist home and a kibbutz background, and therefore never cared about rank. He felt he could learn from corporals and privates, not just from the top brass.

In the second stage of Rabin’s career, he entered politics, becoming Israel’s U.S. ambassador and eventually prime minister. He learned how crucial America is to Israel’s well-being and made important alliances with U.S. leaders. He learned that Israel is a morass of political intrigue. He was first a disciple and then a rival to both Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon. He was a subordinate, but also a threat to both Golda Meir and Abba Eban. During all his years in government, he engaged in a power struggle with Shimon Peres. Rabin and Peres were opposites in every way. Peres was a bold visionary, imaginative and ambitious, creative and restless, forever tinkering with new ideas. Rabin was cerebral and cautious, his feet firmly planted on the ground. Yet they ultimately came to understand that they were joined at the hip and, like it or not, they needed each other. When Rabin and Peres received the Nobel Peace Prize together with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the joke in Israel was that they were honored for making peace with each other, not with Arafat.

The greatest transformation in Rabin’s life came when he moved from being the guardian of Israel’s security to being the person willing to explore the possibility of making a lasting peace with Jordan, Syria and the Palestinians. Rabin came to the conclusion that Israel could not be a garrison state forever, and that it must find some way to make peace with its enemies.

To put it mildly, Rabin was not a person who cared about ingratiating himself with anybody. When he became prime minister, he spoke out with contempt against those who regarded all the land of Israel as sacred and who would not yield an inch, even for the sake of the security of the state. He dismissed those people as a “a cancer on the State of Israel” and “propellers who only make noise,” which is surely not the most tactful way to persuade anyone to agree with your viewpoint.

Rabin believed he could not go to the Israeli public and ask them to gamble for peace until he was first able to persuade Syria’s Hafez al-Assad to make the painful but necessary steps for peace. But Assad turned out to be no Anwar Sadat—the Egyptian president who signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Assad had no understanding of why he should make public gestures to win over Israeli public opinion when in Syria, public opinion was simply irrelevant.

On the Palestinian front, Rabin would not ask the Israeli people to take risks for peace unless he was first able to persuade Arafat to guarantee that he would control the terrorists within the land he would govern. But Arafat—after learning from what happened to Sadat, who was assassinated two years after making peace with Israel—was unwilling to risk his life by doing so. We will never know whether Rabin could have persuaded the Israelis to make the concessions that peace would have required.

Rabinovich’s biography of Rabin is clear and objective. It is the work of a man who has substantial scholarly credentials—he currently heads the Israel Institute think tank—and who worked with Rabin in his efforts to make peace with Syria. The author describes Rabin’s meticulous attention to detail and his insistence on careful planning, which were both the late prime minister’s greatest assets and greatest faults. In the end, as this book makes clear, Rabin was not a dreamer but a realist, not a bold thinker but a careful planner, not a charismatic leader but an often intemperate and undiplomatic head of state. This leadership style—the inability to listen to and persuade those who differed with his goals—is what led to his demise.

Yet Rabin is remembered with ever-increasing nostalgia, not so much for what he did, but for what he symbolizes. He stands for the belief that there can be peace with safeguards, and that this belief is not the fantasy of naïve dreamers, but a real and practical possibility.

Book Review // Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman

Saint, Sinner, Sabra

by David K. Shipler

April 7, 2017

Moment Magazine, in 2017 March-April, Arts & Culture, Featured, Politics

A double myth about Yitzhak Rabin has prevailed since his assassination in 1995. For the Israeli right, his peacemaking attempts were and still are evidence of traitorous subversion. For the Israeli left, and especially to much of the outside world, his memory is crowned with rare nobility. He is either a Neville Chamberlain or a Nelson Mandela, a villainous appeaser or a creative visionary, poised either to destroy Israel or to save it.

Rabin fit into neither category. He was a paradox, as inventive leaders often are. His long history as a tough and skillful warrior informed his evolving quest for guarded compromise with the Arabs—Jordan, Syria and the Palestinians in particular—as the best hope for Israel’s long-term security. By the end, when a Jewish extremist gunned him down, he had demonstrated that the obligation of war and the yearning for peace could coexist in the same person. And in the same country, as it could be said of Israel itself.

The point is made by Rabin’s latest biographer, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, Itamar Rabinovich, a respected historian of the Middle East who served as negotiator in Rabin’s failed attempt at a peace agreement with Syria in the 1990s. Rabinovich notes at the end of Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman, “At some point I considered as a subtitle for this book a line written by the poet Shaul Tchernichovsky: ‘The image of his native landscape.’” Rabin was “the quintessential sabra,” Rabinovich writes, with “a rough exterior concealing an inner sensitivity.” He was “a political dove and a military hawk.”

Rabin demonstrated this repeatedly. In 1982, with his Labor Party in opposition, he refrained from voicing his misgivings about Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s invasion of Lebanon because, as a former chief of staff, he believed that once in a war, “it was imperative to win it,” Rabinovich writes. Yet the politician in him “had to juggle his statements according to the war’s ebb and flow,” and he was widely criticized when he urged the army “to tighten the siege of Beirut.”

Rabin had no taste for political deal-making, an aversion with lasting costs. As prime minister in 1974, he failed to mobilize his party and coalition partners to counter the rise of the religio-nationalist settlement movement Gush Emunim, whose heirs now populate today’s right-wing government. Rabinovich faults him for not “taking bold initiatives and sweeping the country with the vision of a young prime minister representing a new era in Israeli politics.” At that time, “he was cautious by nature, and incrementalist. As a political leader he lacked confidence and experience.”

He gained his footing in his second stint as prime minister from 1992 to 1995. Ready for those bold initiatives, he and his persistent rival, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, explored two tracks: Syria, which Rabin decided should come first, and the Palestinians, with whom Peres’s aides had been secretly negotiating. The Palestinian track culminated in the Oslo Accords and a partial Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. Syria became a tantalizing, frustrating effort that Rabin eventually abandoned.

Rabinovich knows a lot about those years, during which he served as Rabin’s note-taker in high-level meetings and conducted talks in Washington (always in the presence of American officials) with Walid Muallem, then the ambassador from Syria to the United States. Rabinovich developed a scholarly expertise on Syria, and makes excellent use of his personal experience to provide a fresh account of the Israeli efforts to get Syrian president Hafez al-Assad to display the public diplomacy and full recognition that would persuade Israelis to give up the Golan Heights, captured from Syria during the 1967 war.

In August 1993, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher took Rabin’s offers and conditions to Assad, and while Assad agreed in principle, Rabinovich reports, he waffled on key details, rejecting the “large measure of normalization” Rabin had demanded at the beginning of a phased withdrawal. The Americans reacted positively to Assad’s acceptance of “the basic equation,” but Rabin was looking for a resolution he could sell to the Israeli public: an acceptance of Israel as complete as Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat’s dramatic opening had been in 1977. Rightly or wrongly, Rabin concluded that the Syrian track led only to futility.

Rabinovich’s creditable and workmanlike narrative moves efficiently and often concisely. The context he offers is especially illuminating on the run-up to the 1967 war (a good primer for those unfamiliar with the history); the intricacies of Israeli politics (arcane except to readers already knowledgeable); and Rabin’s hopeful, tragic final years and months. It is a useful sketch of history, not a psychological study, but in the book’s plain accounting, some of Rabin’s reflective nature filters through. More of his contemplative side would have enriched the portrait.

Rabin demonstrated his “inner sensitivity” most strikingly toward his own soldiers. He observed, in a speech after the Six-Day War, that even in a nation “swept by joy” at the victory, “we encounter again and again a strange phenomenon among the fighters. They cannot be fully happy…The fighters in the front lines saw with their own eyes not just the glory of victory but also its price—their comrades fell next to them, covered by blood. And I know that the terrible price paid by the enemy has also deeply affected many of them.”

In a passage deleted by censors from his 1979 memoirs but published inThe New York Times, Rabin describes his Palmach unit’s expulsion of Palestinian civilians from the towns of Lod and Ramle during the 1948 War of Independence. “Psychologically, this was one of the most difficult actions we undertook,” he writes in the excerpt quoted by Rabinovich. Inexplicably, Rabinovich then omits a telling paragraph in which Rabin laments, “Great suffering was inflicted upon the men taking part in the eviction action [who] included youth movement graduates, who had been inculcated with values such as international fraternity and humaneness.” Some refused to participate, Rabin recalls, and “prolonged propaganda activities were required after the action, to remove the bitterness of these youth movement groups, and explain why we were obliged to undertake such a harsh and cruel action.”

Those remarkable lines make Rabin seem self-absorbed, but they contain his paradox, an altruistic self-interest that drove him to realize how Israelis suffer by making Arabs suffer. That sensibility, essential for peace, has practically died with him as Israeli politics has hurtled to the right.

Rabin, in a New Light

A new biography by Yitzhak Rabin’s former ambassador to Washington and lead negotiator with Syria recalls the rise of the Israeli leader and a time of possibility

By Armin Rosen

The Tablet Magazine, April 24, 2017

Former Israeli diplomat and Tel Aviv University president Itamar Rabinovich’s new biography of Yitzhak Rabin begins by acknowledging what anyone attempting to demystify the life and times of Israel’s fifth prime minister is up against. “A political assassination…is unlike any other form of death,” Rabinovich writes in the prologue to Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman, part of Yale University Press’s ongoing Jewish Lives series. “An assassination is not only the terminal point of a person’s life but also the starting point of a new reality that the death itself created.”

Rabin’s human proportions are now hopelessly obscured behind layers of political narrative and outright myth. In death, Rabin has been drafted into a simplistic and personality-driven theory of recenet history: He’s a visionary who would have willed Israel and the Middle East into a golden age of coexistence; a martyr to a dying utopian idea as well as the victim of a society that’s proven incapable of ever truly embracing it. At times, Rabin is remembered as the Israeli equivalent of some idealized version of Abraham Lincoln, his life a providential means of herding his country from one historical stage to the next, and at the inevitable expense of his own life.

Rabinovich’s book provides some much-needed clarity, and it begins with a rejection of the Lincoln comparison, which comes slightly later in the prologue. “Lincoln had completed his mission; his assassination was an act of revenge against that achievement,” Rabinovich writes a little later in his prologue. In contrast, Rabin’s accomplishments were incomplete and ambiguous. The Oslo Accords were an era-defining breakthrough, but there’s still no final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, and there may not have been one even if Rabin had lived. Both in his book and in a recent interview with Tablet, Rabinovich ominously notes that in his view, the domestic forces responsible for the atmosphere of violence and division in the lead-up to Rabin’s assassination have gone unchecked in the two decades since. “Among the developments that reinforced and accelerated” Israel’s “journey towards the right” and away from a “genuine quest” for peace with the Palestinians, he writes, were the fact that “the Israeli state failed to punish the larger circle that incited and called for the killing of Rabin, that Israeli society did not go through the requisite soul-searching after the assassination… The assassin and his camp were in fact rewarded for the crime.”

* * *

Rabinovich served as Rabin’s (and later Shimon Peres’s) ambassador to Washington and lead negotiator with Syria from 1993 to 1996. Since Rabinovich was a close colleague of the prime minister’s, the Rabin he describes isn’t a reassuring or politically useful abstraction, but an imperfect and never fully-formed political actor. Rabin was “not a jumper off of cliffs,” he explained. “He didn’t look five stations ahead. He always looked at the next station. I don’t think he expected to become prime minister.” At times, Rabin benefited from wild swings of fortune: The aftermath of a war scare stemming from a botched military exercise in 1959 cleared the way for Rabin to become the IDF’s third in command, just as he was planning to travel to the U.S. to study at Harvard University.

As Rabinovich’s book explains, Rabin’s worldview was formed out of experiences from early in his career. During Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, Rabin commanded the division of the Harel Brigades tasked with securing the road between the new country’s Jewish-majority coastal plain and Jerusalem, its besieged inland capital. The division’s casualty rate pushed the 50 percent mark, and Rabin became convinced that Israel had been dangerously ill-prepared to fight off the Arab invasion. “The reason that he decided to stay in the IDF was to make sure that didn’t happen again,” said Rabinovich.

Rabinovich’s book touches on another intriguing detail in Rabin’s early biography: In February of 1949, Rabin attended the conference on the Greek island of Rhodes where Egypt and Israel negotiated their post-war ceasefire agreement. In Rhodes, the young lieutenant colonel Rabin saw that “it was not in Israel’s interest to negotiate with an Arab collective,” and understood that “Israel does better when it deals separately with individual Arab states,” Rabinovich writes—the future prime minister saw that peace was possible, so long as it was done gradually and carefully. Later on, Rabin showed a remarkable ability to learn from both his failures and his triumphs. The scandal and infighting of his first unsuccessful, mid-’70s term as prime minister taught him to be a less domineering and more politically minded leader when he took the reins again 15 years later. And one of the many surprises of Rabinovich book is reading about Rabin’s sense of regret over his role in the multi-year escalation cycle with Egypt and Syria leading up to the 1967 Six-Day War, at time when he served as the IDF’s chief of staff and cemented his later reputation as Israel’s “Mr. National Security.”

Rabinovich describes Rabin as “a military hawk and a political dove,” someone who was widely respected, but lacking in natural charisma. If the IDF ever entered into a conflict, Rabin believed it had to win, regardless of how ill-advised that conflict might be at its core—an attitude that might explain Rabin’s commitment to violently suppressing the first Palestinian uprising when he served as Yizhak Shamir and Shimon Peres’s Minister of Defense in the 1980s. At the same time, he saw the strategic necessity of an accommodation over the status of the West Bank from an early point, telling a group of “young Orthodox Zionists” in 1974 that he was willing to “visit Kfar Etziyon with a passport,” according to Rabinovich’s book.

During his second term as prime minister, which lasted from July of 1992 until his assassination on November 4, 1995, Rabin recognized that the biggest threats to Israel were no longer from Egypt, Syria, or the Palestinians, but from Iraq and Iran, the hostile revisionist states further to Israel’s east. “He believed that Israel had to consolidate its immediate environment in order to deal with these threats,” saidRabinovich. Rabin wanted to put his country on the path to peace with Syria and the Palestinians, and saw an opening for negotiations after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had been a patron of Hafez al-Assad’s regime in Syria as well as Yassir Arafat’s PLO. But that doesn’t mean Rabin ever intended to rush towards a final agreement with either. “I don’t think that when he began he was trying to achieve final status peace with all of Israel’s neighbors,” Rabinovich said. “He was an incrementalist by inclination and he always moved step by step.”

* * *

Assassinated leaders leave a trail of “what ifs” in their wake. Rabinovich thinks that Yigal Amir “inflicted a blow” on the peace process on November 4, 1995, without entirely killing the possibility of peace. Still, the former ambassador hinted at what Rabin’s future could have included. According to Rabinovich, Rabin believed that peace with Syria could be possible during a hypothetical third term as prime minister, so long as there was “geopolitical pressure on Assad in order for him to make a deal.”

Rabinovich believes that the biggest missed opportunity of the early 1990s peace process was Rabin’s “deposit” of hypothetical Israeli concessions in a prospective peace deal with Syria, which he communicated to Secretary of State Warren Christopher in August of 1993. At that point, Hafez al-Assad demanded Israel commit to fully withdrawing from the Golan Heights as a starting-point for negotiations. In a characteristically subtle move, Rabin outlined his vision of a generous final agreement for Christopher, with the expectation that the US’s top diplomat would use his knowledge of Israel’s bottom line to carefully guide Assad to the negotiating table. Rabinovich writes that the “deposit” was mishandled: Christopher prematurely revealed Israel’s final status positions during a meeting with Assad that month, leaving Rabin with the feeling that “the rug had been pulled out from under him,” Rabinovich writes. Assad also gave only vague indication that he was ready to call off his conflict with Israel under any circumstances. A settlement with Syria “would have put the whole peace process on a different footing,” said Rabinovich, and even might have prevented Syria’s violent collapse two decades later. Alas, Rabinovich said, “the combination of the mishandling of the deposit and the ambivalence of Assad directed the peace process to the Palestinian track” instead, where it founders to this day.

Rabinovich’s book transports readers back to a time when a much different Middle East seemed possible, an all-too-brief window when regional tranquility wasn’t a far-off notion or a dark punchline. But Rabinovich’s book also makes the important case that nothing was ever as simple or straightforward as it now may seem to have been—starting with Rabin himself.

Armin Rosen is a New York-based writer. He has written for The Atlantic, City Journal, and World Affairs Journal, and was recently a senior reporter for Business Insider.

New Biography Paints Intimate Profile of Yitzhak Rabin

Seth J. Frantzman

Jerusalem Post, May 5, 2017

A new biography of Yitzhak Rabin paints an intimate profile of the leader and his struggles.

On July 13, 1992, Yitzhak Rabin presented his government to the Knesset.

“He was determined to put an end to what he saw as the mortgaging of Israel’s resources and future to the settlement project in the West Bank and Gaza,” writes Itamar Rabinovich in a new biography. Israel, the author continues, was being drained economically and its international position was being undermined.

Some 25 years later, the same argument could be made and is being made by Israel’s Left. John Kerry said as much in his speech bookending the Obama years. Israel’s current government isn’t listening.

Should it be? Rabin was always a complex figure and his Janus-faced policies – on the one hand the tough soldier who allegedly encouraged the army to “break bones” during the first intifada and on the other hand the “man of peace” – loomed large in Israeli history. This feeds into competing narratives of history as well: that Rabin alone helped lead to peace and his murder destroyed the chance for peace, or that Palestinian intransigence is the real problem. Rabinovich, a professor at New York University, former ambassador to the US under Rabin and a chief negotiator with Syria, is well placed to unpack Rabin’s life. He sets out by arguing that “as consequential as Rabin’s assassination was, it is his life – his decisions and actions – not his death that defines his legacy.” Rabinovich argues that Israelis are still in need of a new Rabin, “a leader of the stature and qualities,” that can fix the country’s fundamental problems. Rabin was born in Jerusalem in 1922. It’s hard to imagine how interconnected the world he was born into was. His mother Rosa, a non-Zionist, nevertheless moved to Palestine in 1919 when the Soviet revolution was not to her liking. She knew Labor Zionist leader Berl Katznelson, and Moshe Shertok was her cousin. Zionism was very much a family business in those days, even for non-Zionists. Rabin was nurtured in these circles, in elite schools, and among the budding doyens of Labor youth movements. In 1941 he joined the Palmah. The War of Independence “catapulted him from a mid-level officer in the Palmach to one of the IDF’s best-known senior officers,” writes Rabinovich. Rabin is accused of expelling Arab inhabitants from villages conquered in 1948, a fact he admitted in 1979. The biographer concludes the reality of today is “far removed from the considerations the political and military leadership had to take into account in July 1948.” In the 1950s, Rabin was one of the first IDF officers sent abroad to be educated at a military staff college. He slogged through appointments along the Golan, defending Israel from Syria’s provocations. Rabin told an interviewer that Israel should respond in kind, “against the perpetrators and against the regime that supports them.” Rabin got his wish in 1967 when Israel went to war and crushed the armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Readers expecting a military history here will be disappointed. The author is more interested in the lead-up to the war and Rabin’s breakdown from exhaustion before it was launched, than the intricacies of battalions and brigades. Rabinovich expertly sketches the “Siamese twin” rivalry and relationship with Shimon Peres that lasted from the ’70s to ’90s. He also leads readers through the fascinating discussions with Jordan in 1974 when King Hussein asked Israel to give him a strip of land in the Jordan Valley to separate the kingdom from the Palestinians. Rabin also “supported the establishment of settlements in the Golan Heights, in sparsely populated parts of the West Bank and in areas around Jerusalem that were designated to become part of Israel once a final status agreement could be reached,” writes Rabinovich. The most fascinating part of the book deals with the last years of Rabin’s life, when he was trying to come to peace agreements with Syria, the Palestinians and Jordan. The Syrian track is now forgotten amidst the bloodshed across the border, but serious thought was made of giving up the Golan in the 1990s. Most interesting are Rabin’s comments in an October 1995 speech, after the Oslo Accords, when he told the Knesset that the Palestinian “entity” in the West Bank would “be less than a state... we will not return to the lines of June 4, 1967.” Rabinovich is careful to remind readers that the soldier-statesman was not a dove. He was “a centrist leader, preoccupied with Israel’s security.” In the words of Henry Kissinger, “Yitzhak was not a flower child.”

Book Review: An Insider's View of How Rabin Almost Made Peace With Syria

Itamar Rabinovich, the late prime minister's ambassador to Washington, details why Rabin preferred peace with Assad over the Palestinians, in his new book, 'Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman.'

David Makovsky

Haaretz, May 14, 2017

As a journalist who covered Yitzhak Rabin during his second tenure as prime minister between 1992 and 1995, I found he was most relaxed when he was most analytical. It was when he sat at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv that he felt most at home – both as prime and defense minister. I would interview him many times there, and he was far more at ease than when he was at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem and could hear protesters not far from his window. He would light up a cigarette and begin talking about trends in the Middle East, often flicking his wrist as he distinguished between what he deemed to be strategic change versus tactical shifts. If you asked Rabin the right question, he would not hold back. He lacked guile and was proud of his unvarnished candor.

What was so striking about Rabin is how animated he became when he spoke about the Middle East. Rabin was most proud of his analysis, and how his policy would stem from that analysis. Rabin’s public credibility existed not just because he was the veteran Israel Defense Forces chief of staff who won the 1967 war and spent many years as defense minister. Rather, it was because the public trusted the intellectual honesty Rabin conveyed. You could disagree with Rabin – as so many certainly did in the Oslo years – but you knew where he stood and believed he honestly thought he was doing what was best for the country. Rabin was committed to telling his public, as he often did in an unambiguous fashion, that the status quo was harming Israel, and it needed to be addressed.

To be sure, Rabin led Israel at a time of seismic global change. The Cold War had just ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, ending the massive arming of Damascus at that time. The United States, Israel’s patron, won the Gulf War against Iraq, dealing a blow to Arab radicalism. Around the same time, Israel welcomed a wave of highly educated immigrants from the former Soviet Union. This was the time for Israel’s leading thinker to seize on the strategic change, both in the region and internationally. Rabin sought to convince Israelis that a combination of peace agreements, military strength, better relations with the U.S. and economic renewal were better for Israel's security than more settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. He wanted to convince them that Israel had the opportunity to secure a more integrated place in the Mideast by making some painful concessions.

Itamar Rabinovich’s new biography of Rabin is a one-volume political profile that is key to understanding the personal trajectory of this seminal Israeli figure. It is a book spanning Rabin’s life, largely focusing on his military and political career. The book explores Rabin’s relationship with key figures of Israel’s pantheon like Ben-Gurion, Dayan and, of course, his endless, famous rivalry with Shimon Peres.

Rabinovich was Rabin’s ambassador to Washington and his chief negotiator with Syria. His centrism very much reflected Rabin’s. His portrait of Rabin includes interviews with many of those who worked closely with him, other archival, primary sources and, of course, the secondary literature. He also gained access to transcripts of dozens of interviews and speeches that Rabin gave.

All this enabled Rabinovich to delve deep into some of the more mystifying elements of Rabin’s career, including his emotional state on the eve of 1967 war when he was IDF chief of staff, with all the pressure that entailed, particularly in the absence of a full-time defense minister. Rabinovich’s conclusion, based on interviews with those familiar with the episode, was that Rabin suffered from “physical exhaustion and acute anxiety” but not a nervous breakdown as critics have alleged.

Rabinovich’s book also adds to our understanding of Rabin at a critical moment of his second premiership. Crucially, Rabin had to decide whether to remain on the Syrian diplomatic track and abandon the secret Oslo channel or vice versa. On one hand, he thought there was value in pursuing both tracks simultaneously, believing it could create leverage for Israel. Yet he also knew that two breakthroughs could overload the political circuits in Israel.

Rabinovich, who was present at the pivotal meetings where Rabin was pressed to choose one track, describes how this all came to a head in August 1993. U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher was pressing for a breakthrough with Damascus. For Rabin, the regional strategist, a breakthrough with Syria was ideal. Shorn of its Soviet patron, a deal with Damascus could peel Syria away from Iran, while also potentially cutting it off from its proxy, Hezbollah. Syria was a centralized state that had gone to war with Israel three times. Peace with Damascus was viewed as a potential strategic bonanza.

The Palestinian issue was far messier. Rabin felt that, despite the intifada, the Palestinians did not pose a conventional military threat to Israel in the same way that Syria did. Moreover, focusing on the West Bank would mean a head-on collision with the settler movement. In contrast, there were relatively few (and largely secular) settlers on the Golan. What makes Rabinovich’s account of August 1993 so intriguing is that it is clear Rabin’s regional assessment was not sufficient for his own decision-making: Rabin didn’t just need to decide if a deal made strategic sense for Israel; he needed Syria to demonstrate to the Israeli public that it genuinely wanted peace.

According to Rabinovich’s account, Rabin was repeatedly disappointed in ’93 that Assad was oblivious to the public diplomacy necessary to frame any breakthrough in negotiations to the Israeli people. While drawn to the regional value of a Syrian breakthrough, Rabin had to account for his own ability to deliver.

At the same time, Rabin was concerned that his government could collapse, due to a looming crisis involving the likely indictment of Shas minister Aryeh Deri for corruption, which would trigger the exodus of the Shas party from the coalition. Always believing he could make one big breakthrough, Rabin thought the time for decisions was imminent.

Despite months of talks at Oslo, on August 3, 1993, Rabin made it clear to Christopher that his preference was for a breakthrough with Syria. Rabinovich recounts how he played his ultimate card, telling Christopher that if Hafez al-Assad would satisfy Israel’s demands on a range of issues (security, water and normalization), Israel would fully withdraw from the Golan over five years. Rabin wanted to prove to the Israeli public that he would achieve full normalization with Syria, including an exchange of embassies early in the withdrawal process. Rabin made clear he was making the territorial concession to Christopher and not Assad, and called it the “deposit.”

Here Rabinovich, historian, practitioner and confidant, realizes he has just witnessed something potentially historic. “As we made the short walk from Rabin’s office to the conference room in which Rabin’s and Christopher’s aides were impatiently waiting, I said to [American counterpart Dennis] Ross that I could hear the winds of history in the room. I knew Rabin had just given Christopher the keys to an Israeli-Syrian peace.”

According to Rabinovich, in the follow-up meeting upon Christopher’s return from Damascus on August 5, Rabin expressed disappointment with Assad’s lack of alacrity in seizing upon his offer, and felt Christopher was too revealing of the “deposit” to Assad. Rabinovich says the U.S. saw the Assad response as supportive of the Rabin offer, and put forward a counter-offer that was just the beginning of the negotiation. Rabinovich seems disheartened the U.S. didn’t engage in more urgent diplomacy; instead, Christopher went on vacation.

However, it may be unfair to blame the Americans. It’s likely Rabin did not convey his desire for an accelerated timetable to the Americans. They seemed to know about the competing secret Oslo track in general terms, but may not have realized that he wanted a breakthrough that month, or could risk a collapse of his government. Rabin may not have wanted to share his sense of urgency with the U.S. believing it was too politically sensitive.

With a Syria deal off the table, Rabin returned his attention to the Palestinians. The advantage to a breakthrough with the Palestinians, Rabinovich points out, was that, “it was an interim agreement, and the toughest decisions could be delayed for five years. In a deal with Syria, the most painful choices [committing to a full withdrawal from the Golan] would have to be made up front. Rabin ended up deciding to give the green light to conclude the Oslo negotiations and forsook a Syrian track.”

Rabin dispelled the notion that if you are weak, you cannot afford to compromise, and if you are strong, you do not need to compromise. As Israel’s “Mr. Security,” Rabin believed that Israel was strong and could negotiate from a position of strength. The destinies of the Israelis and the Palestinians would be separated, and this motif would be more dominant than the theme of reconciliation. It would be a soldier's peace – without illusions. He believed it was unhealthy for Israeli decision-making to be held hostage by perpetual gridlock. After all, Zionism came about because the Jews were committed to transforming their predicament and refused to be paralyzed. Rabin may have lacked the charisma of other leaders, but as the famed novelist Amos Oz said of him: “By being a careful engineer and a precise navigator, his personality embodied the spirit of new Israel, a country seeking not redemption but solutions.”

Rabin understood that the moral authority of leadership could be strongest at home and abroad when Israel exhausted every avenue for peace, using war only as the last resort. As a journalist who interviewed him countless times, I remember him often saying how important it was for him to be able look into the eyes of mothers and tell them he had tried all options before sending their sons into battle. For him, Israel’s public resilience was tied to the moral authority of its cause.

He defined leadership not just as saying tough things to outsiders, but to his own public. He felt it was important to preserve Israel’s character as a nation-state of the Jewish people and as a democracy.

For Rabin and his fellow Israelis, Oslo shook the country to the core. Many were thrilled and viewed Oslo as the ticket to being a normal Western country that Israelis craved. Yet, for Rabin’s critics, Oslo was perfidy. A societal chasm emerged, and the trajectory was clear. Israel would be yielding biblical patrimony. For the critics, the move was not just misguided but illegitimate. Tragically, Rabin would pay the ultimate price.

Rabinovich’s account is an important reminder of the role of leaders can play in rising to the occasion in making historic decisions, especially at a time when people believe decisions are too momentous for any single leader to even consider – let alone make.

David Makovsky is the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He was a senior advisor in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of State’s Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations during 2013-2014. He has written widely on the Middle East Peace Process including “Making Peace with the PLO: The Rabin Government’s Road to the Osl Accord” (Harper Collins, 1996).

Yitzhak Rabin: The Spirit of Israel

Kevin P. Spicer

America Magazine, May 17, 2017

Yitzhak Rabin’s life is fundamentally the story of Israel in the 20th century. Born in 1922 in Jerusalem, Rabin studied agriculture in a kibbutz east of Tel Aviv, enlisted in the Palmach, the pre-national military strike units formed to confront possible Nazi attacks, and fought alongside the British in Syria and Lebanon against troops loyal to Vichy France. Possessing keen analytical skills, Rabin rose through the Palmach’s ranks. He demonstrated these skills militarily during key operations of the War of Independence (1947-48), transitioned from the Palmach to the newly declared Israel Defense Forces and concluded the war as a lieutenant colonel in the supreme high command.

In October 1949, Rabin went against the wishes of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and attended the farewell rally of Palmach soldiers. This decision sidelined his advance in the I.D.F. for more than a decade. In 1964, Ben-Gurion’s successor, Levi Eshkol, redeemed Rabin by appointing him chief of staff for the I.D.F. Soon, Rabin was determining Israel’s national security policy and oversaw its victory in the Six-Day War against Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Success did not engender contentment over his role in the events that led to war but precipitated a brief period of physical exhaustion and anxiety, a factor his enemies would later use against him. Still, Rabin persevered. From 1968 to 1973, he effectively represented Israel to the United States, polishing his diplomatic skills. Soon after his return home, he defeated his archrival Shimon Peres as Labor Party leader and led his party to parliamentary victory. Rabin’s first tenure (1974-77) as Israel’s prime minister, the first Israeli-born leader to win the position, was marked with highs and lows, the latter resulting from his frankness and often brutal honesty. In December 1974, clashes with settlers highlighted internal tensions that never went away. In May 1977, political scandals coupled with the nation’s fatigue over 29 years of Labor hegemony led to his unseating. Still, Rabin remained in government as a member of the Knesset and became Minister of Defense (1984-90). In December 1987, his hardline stance, which permitted the use of force against demonstrators during the First Intifada, seemed uncharacteristic of his leadership. In October 1992, when Labor won the election, Rabin returned to power as prime minister. His years of experience in politics enabled him now to view the Israeli-Palestinian situation differently. Rabin chose a path of peace and negotiation.

It is at this point that Itamar Rabinovich, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States and chief negotiator with Syria from 1992 to 1996, became closely associated with Rabin and his government. Rabinovich offers his insights into Rabin’s life in the new biography Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman. According to Rabinovich, Rabin oversaw the complex negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization, Jordan and Syria. Yearning to find a solution but uncommitted to any specific path, Rabin also engaged Joel Singer, a retired I.D.F. colonel, to explore alternatives to those being more openly discussed. The end result was the Oslo Accords (1993) signed in Washington between Rabin and Yasser Arafat. This created the Palestinian Authority and paved the way for limited Palestinian self-rule and determination. Other agreements followed. In his speech in July 1994, marking the end of decades-long conflict between Jordan and Israel, Rabin declared, “We are launching today a war that has not killed and wounded, no blood and suffering, the war for peace.” In December 1994, Rabin, Peres and Arafat shared the Nobel Peace Prize for their peace efforts.

Not everyone was pleased by Rabin’s efforts. Opposition groups protested, carrying placards that portrayed Rabin wearing a SS uniform and Arab headgear. They also labeled Rabin’s government a Judenrat, echoing the negative label put on so-called compliant Jewish councils in Nazi-controlled ghettos. In particular, Rabinovich focuses on three events that foreshadowed the violence that would later tragically erupt: 1) a protest in March 1994 in Ra’anana near Tel Aviv in which protestors marched with a gallows and a coffin bearing the inscription, “Zionism’s murderer”; 2) a Sept. 10, 1995, assault on Rabin by Rabbi Natan Ophir at the Wingate Institute near Tel Aviv, during a rally of the Association of Immigrants from the United States and Canada; and 3) an Oct. 5, 1995, protest in Jerusalem’s Zion Square following the Knesset’s approval of the Oslo II Interim Agreement. By Nov. 4, 1995, the enmity had reached its apex when Yigal Amir, a 24-year-old law student, fired three bullets into Rabin’s back, killing the prime minister. Rabinovich alludes to the possibility of lax security and the belief that a Jew would never assassinate another Jew. In the 1970s, Rabin had denounced the ideology and violence of extreme groups including the right-wing Gush Emunim as a threat to Israeli democracy but, at the time, feared entities such as the P.L.O. even more. In the end, the enemy came from within.

Rabinovich has produced an immensely engaging study of Yitzhak Rabin. The subtitle, “Soldier, Leader, Statesman,” captures the focus of Rabinovich’s insightful narrative. Little is said about Rabin’s personal side or family life. Nevertheless, the intricate weaving of complex diplomatic and political history in which Rabin was a central figure is extremely well done. Rabinovich’s coverage of Israel following Rabin’s assassination also speculates how the prime minister’s death influenced the current complex situation of the Middle East. It is certainly required reading for anyone interested in Israel and the Middle East today.

This article also appeared in print, under the headline "The spirit of Israel," in the May 29, 2017 issue.

Kevin P. Spicer, C.S.C., is a distinguished professor of history at Stonehill College.

What actually happened


Let us start with due diligence: I know Itamar Rabinovich. We are not friends but we both served under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in his second term (1992–5), I as the director of the Government Press Office, he in a much more important position – the Israeli ambassador in Washington. Rabinovich has written impartially about Rabin, whom he knew well. I’ll try to adhere to his example.

In this biography Rabinovich, an acclaimed historian of the Middle East, follows the slow rise of Yitzhak Rabin from his service in Jerusalem in 1948, when, as a commander of the Palmach (“strike force”) regiment, he sent sixteen-year-old fighters to their deaths trying to break the Arab siege of the city, to his role as one of the architects of Israel’s greatest victory, in the Six Day War of 1967; as an ambassador in Washington during the Cold War, where he was schooled in diplomacy and statesmanship, and as Prime Minister (1974–7) and later Defence Minister (1984–90) during the first intifada, when he realized the need to settle with the Palestinians; and as Prime Minister again, eventually paying with his life for daring to make peace with the PLO.

This is not the first Life of Rabin. Rabin of Israel (1977) by Time Magazine’s Israel correspondent, Robert Slater, was a very empathetic biography, which Slater revised immediately after Rabin’s assassination (curiously enough, Rabinovitch doesn’t mention this landmark book). When it was revised and republished again in 2015, shortly after Slater’s death, Rabin’s daughter, Dalia, said that “the two men shared a chemistry that allowed for the creation of a truly honest and open biography”. Rabinovich, who had no less chemistry with Rabin than did Slater, nevertheless makes few allowances for his subject. A case in point is his handling of May 23, 1967, just before the Six Day War, when Rabin, mentally and physically exhausted, suffered a breakdown and was incapacitated for thirty-six hours. Ezer Weizman, his second-in-command, replaced him until he recovered. In a short book like this, Rabinovich could have easily settled for a brief mention of the incident – one that was kept secret for several years. Instead, the author quotes a damning passage from the memoirs of Weizman: “The state and stability of the Chief of Staff, Yitzhak Rabin, [were] fraying. It was manifested through changes of decisions, in expressions of anxiety regarding the future and inability to make decisions. Rabin generated insecurity around him”.

Rabinovich is a master of brevity. He summarizes one of the most dramatic events in Rabin’s life – the handshake with Yasser Arafat on the South Lawn of the White House – with a few dry words. One has to read the memoirs of Bill Clinton to discover the drama behind the scene, when the fear was that Arafat would not only push for a handshake, but – in the tradition of the Middle East – would attempt to kiss Rabin as well. The night before, Clinton rehearsed the meeting with his National Security Advisor, Tony Lake, both having a good laugh at the different tricks and physical manoeuvres designed to foil Arafat’s potential flirtatious schemes. But Rabinovich will have none of that juicy stuff. Here is how he sums up the event:

[Rabin] found the perfect demeanor for dealing with Arafat. He shook his hand, but his discomfort was evident. His facial expression and body language reflected his uneasiness. For an Israeli public who had to absorb Arafat’s transformation from a rabid and unacceptable enemy into a partner in a peace process, Rabin found the perfect pitch.

Rabinovich’s language – lean, precise, devoid of embellishment – reminds me of the way Rabin himself used to talk: dugri, as we say in Hebrew, straightforward, to the point. He refrains from any asides about his subject, even the kind of minimalistic comment that Henry Kissinger made about Rabin: “I grew extremely fond of him though he did little to encourage affection”. In an era when language is being abused for political purposes and agendas, Rabinovich’s book is a breath of fresh air. If doctors take the Hippocratic oath to be loyal to their profession, historians follow the directive of Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886), the founder of modern historical science, “to show what actually happened”.

As Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Rabinovich was in a similarly awkward position to the one that Rabin had occupied two decades before, when Golda Meir was the Prime Minister and Abba Eban the Foreign Minister: officially under the Foreign Minister but in practice reporting directly to the Prime Minister. Manoeuvring between these two powerful figures, in his case Rabin and Shimon Peres, who alternated between collaboration and undermining each other, surely stretched Rabinovich’s diplomatic skills to the full. The author could have illustrated his personal dilemma with a perfect example. After the ceremony at the White House, the Israeli delegation was invited to dinner at the ambassador’s mansion. Much to the delight of the Israeli journalists present, Rabin, obviously exhausted by the long day’s events and perhaps fuelled by more booze than he was used to, started levelling nuanced insults towards the grim-faced Peres, who sat alone on the other side of the room. At one point Rabinovich, always the gentleman, went over and sat with the Foreign Minister. This episode, which I witnessed, is absent from the book, because Rabinovich writes about Rabin, not about himself.

One of the most intriguing chapters deals with the way Rabin, in the summer of 1993, wavered between the Syrian and Palestinian options. Having qualms about dealing with the PLO, Rabin hoped that if he made a breakthrough with Damascus this would coerce the Palestinians into negotiating from a weaker position. Talks with Syria’s Hafez al-Assad seemed promising, so much so that Rabinovich, who was Israel’s chief negotiator, told the US Middle East Envoy, Dennis Ross, that he “could hear the wings of history”. But Assad remained vague on the issue of full peace with Israel, and when the Syrian path was closed Rabin had no choice but to turn reluctantly to the Palestinian one, not least because he wanted to avoid an open clash with Peres, who had been leading the then clandestine Oslo talks. The State Department official Daniel Kurtzer, frustrated by the failure of American diplomats (himself included) to broker a peace between Israel and Syria, wrote that such peace “could have been achieved in the 1990s . . . . Historians of the future will look back and wonder why a difference of a few hundred meters along the shore of the Sea of Galilee was allowed to block the way to a peace agreement”.

Rabinovich is neither in the business of passing judgements such as this, nor in wondering whether, considering Syria’s dire situation today, it would have been wise to give the Golan Heights to Hafez al-Assad – or, alternatively, whether Syria in the possession of Golan would still have fallen into a bloody civil war. Loyal to Ranke, he refuses to speculate about alternatives. He also avoids the trap of asking the inevitable question: what would have happened if Rabin hadn’t been assassinated? In an event for the book’s launch on March 9 at the Brookings Institution in Washington, Bill Clinton said that “I remain convinced that had [Rabin] lived we would have achieved a comprehensive agreement with the Palestinians by 1998 and that we would be living in a different world today”. I’m sure that Rabinovich kept his legendary diplomatic poker face when he heard that. Here he calls this kind of speculation “an exercise in counterfactual history”.

In the two decades after the assassination of Rabin, there has been a debate in Israel over his legacy. Should he be remembered for his awe-inspiring contribution to the security of Israel or, conversely, for his bold – and highly controversial – decision to make peace with the PLO? Leslie Derfler, another biographer of Rabin (also not mentioned by Rabinovich), thinks that the shift from “Mr Security” to “Peacemaker” wasn’t so dramatic after all, because there was a continuity, “an underlying awareness of the need for a political and not a military solution to assure Israeli security”. Rabinovich puts it in his own words:

Indeed, it is wrong to remember and commemorate Rabin as a dovish leader. Rabin was a centrist leader preoccupied with Israel’s security, and he came to the conclusion that the country should seek to moderate and eventually settle its conflict with its Arab neighbors. To him, the quest for peace was intimately connected with the quest for security.

In this epilogue, Rabinovich says that he considered as a subtitle for the book a line by the poet Shaul Tschernichovsky: “The image of his native landscape”. He calls Rabin “the quintessential sabra, the native-born Israeli”. And yet the Israel that Rabin helped to create and defend has changed drastically. Rabinovich sees in the final years of Rabin as Prime Minister “a valiant effort by a soldier-turned-statesman to use most of the territory he captured in 1967 to consolidate, save and preserve that original landscape. His assassination became a crucial step on the road to its transformation”. Had I been writing these words myself, I would have added the word “tragically” or “alas” at the beginning of that final sentence. Itamar Rabinovich would never do that: he leaves it for his readers to decide. And that is why this book is so compelling.

Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman

Review by Maron L. Waxman

The first native-born prime minister of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin exemplifies his generation. He was brought up in the Labor tradition, graduated from a prestigious high school, then joined the Palmach, an elite fighting force in the prestate underground army. Like many of his contemporaries, he served in the War of Independence, an experience that shaped his life. Shy, outspoken, and not always long on patience, Rabin was not a natural leader, but he had a strong sense of purpose. Despite his awkward manner and many differences with other political leaders, notably Shimon Peres, he left his mark on Israeli history .

Itamar Rabinovich, former Israeli ambassador to the United States and president of Tel Aviv University, served as Rabin’s chief negotiator to Syria. From his firsthand knowledge of Rabin’s policies and close working relationship with him, he has written a sympathetic and highly informative biography that tracks Rabin’s career from chief of the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) to his not entirely successful first tenure as prime minister—he did plan and execute the Entebbe rescue—to his return to the prime ministership after fifteen years—a rare event in politics—as a more experienced and skilled leader .

The horrific and bloody battle on the road to Jerusalem in 1948 in which Rabin lost half his men was a key point in Rabin’s career. It burned itself into his memory as both a military and political failure. Believing that the leadership had not prepared the troops for war, Rabin, as he moved up in the military chain of command, determined that Israel’s security would never again be compromised. He developed Israel into a dominant regional power, culminating in the stunning success of the Six-Day War. This victory and Rabin’s record as a highly effective defense minister gave him authority with the public as a leader who ensured Israel's security .

As an insider during Rabin’s second tenure as prime minister, Rabinovich is able to convey the tension and sense of immediacy in this complex and difficult period. A military hawk, Rabin was also a political dove, determined to pursue the peace process; above all he was a realist who believed Israel could not exist without resolving the issue of the West Bank. Paths to peace agreements had been opened, and in a compelling account Rabinovich gives a firsthand report of the events that led to the signing of the Oslo Accords .

Equally compelling is Rabinovich’s account of the anger and hardening of positions leading up to Rabin’s assassination. Israeli security failed to take seriously the increasingly vicious threats against Rabin and incitement of the right wing, believing that a Jew would never kill a Jew, and Rabin himself chose to maintain his public appearances. His assassination in 1995 at a large and enthusiastic peace rally in central Tel Aviv threw the country into a state of deep shock and mourning. Rabin’s funeral was an emotional outpouring attended by world leaders, an acknowledgment of his stature and place in Israeli history .

Rabinovich, a prominent historian, brings both his deep knowledge of the Middle East and his insider’s experience to this close-up picture of the years in which Israel grew into a full-fledged nation and Yitzhak Rabin’s part in that development. Well-organized and highly readable, "Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman" is of definite interest to any follower of Israel’s history .

Book Review | Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman

by Neill Lochery

Fathom Journal, Summer 2017

I must warn the reader at the start of this review of a couple of personal points that might be considered by some to distort my viewpoint on this book. I regard Yitzhak Rabin as the most important prime minister in Israel’s short history (or to be precise equal number one with David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first and longest serving leader). This might surprise some readers who would put figures such as Menachem Begin, or even Benjamin Netanyahu (Israel’s second longest serving leader) above Rabin in the ranking order .

In light of this personal perception, it’s worth pointing out that I have always wanted to write my own biography of Rabin. My final admission is that I have always been a little suspicious of diplomatic figures such as Itamar Rabinovich whose careers have straddled both active diplomacy and academia. To me, there is a sense that such figures retain a strong interest in developing particular academic narratives that justify their work and actions as diplomats .

Taking all of the above together, I started reading the book with a degree of scepticism and suspicion at how a book of under 250 pages of text could possibly do justice to the life of such an important Israeli leader. I am pleased to report that all my concerns were misplaced. Rabinovich’s biography of Rabin is masterly and the perfect example of when less is more. It is likely to remain the definitive book on Rabin’s life and career for some years to come .

As the title of the book indicates, Rabinovich divides Rabin’s career into three stages: solider, leader and statesman. The distinction between the last two stages is important as Rabin’s first period as prime minister (1974-77) is widely seen as being very different to his second time as leader (1992-1995). Given the structure of the book and the number of pages that the author (correctly) devotes to Rabin’s time as Israeli Ambassador to the US, he could have added the additional subtitle of ‘diplomat’ to the title of the book .

The first part of the book offers the traditional narrative of Rabin as the soldier and the officer climbing up the greasy pole of the IDF to reach the position of Chief of Staff. There remains much debate in Israel as to just how successful Rabin was in this position .

Here Rabinovich highlights two important points that are often used against Rabin: his apparent collapse on the eve of the Six-Day War in 1967 and his poor relationship with Abba Eban, Israel’s minister of foreign affairs. Rabinovich largely dismisses the importance of Rabin’s collapse in 1967, arguing that it was only brought into the public domain much later by his political opponents in order to try to damage his character with the Israeli electorate .

Rabin’s poor relationship with Eban was a more dangerous threat as it continued into the early part of Rabin’s post-IDF career. Both men had disagreed with one another over key parts of Israel’s build-up to the Six-Day War and Eban had initially opposed Rabin’s post-war appointment as ambassador to Washington. They clashed again over the War of Attrition (1967-70) and in particular Rabin’s calls for an escalation of the war to try damage President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. As Rabinovich outlines in detail :

The acrimonious debate between the foreign minister [Eban] and the Washington ambassador [Rabin] was yet another turn in a relationship that was going from bad to worse. As we have seen, Rabin and Eban had a sharp disagreement in May 1967 when Eban argued in the Israeli cabinet that the United States did not want to see Israel go to war over the closure of the Tiran Straights. Later when Rabin asked Eshkol to send him to Washington, Eban objected.

Israeli politics is full of stories of such rivalries and problematic personal relationships, but Eban remained a real threat to Rabin’s blossoming career as a diplomat.

In retrospect, Rabin’s time in Washington was important in helping him develop contacts and lasting relationships with key Americans such as Henry Kissinger. It also turned out to be important in distancing Rabin in the public’s mind from the leadership of the Labor Party’s failings for the October 1973 War.

Rabinovich expertly outlines Rabin’s rise to power in 1974, as well highlighting the plusses and minuses of his first government from 1974 to 1977. The resignation of Rabin in 1977 over a scandal involving his wife (Leah Rabin kept an active bank account in the US in violation of Israel’s currency laws) is covered in detail. The dispute between Rabin’s Labor Party and the National Religious Party, which led to the collapse of the coalition government is also explained in depth, as is its long-term consequences for Israeli politics.

After 29 years in opposition, Menachem Begin and the Likud won the resulting election in 1977. Since then, with the exception of two periods (1992-1996 and 18 months from 1999 to the start of 2001) the centre-right in Israel (Likud or Kadima) has enjoyed at least a share of power in Israel. In other words, while few saw it that way back in 1977, the centre-right took over from the centre-left as the natural party of government in Israel.

In 1977, Rabin’s political prospects looked bleak and his chances of getting a second shot at being prime minister were very remote. While his intra-party rival, Eban had long departed the political scene, Rabin’s career became linked to another political opponent from within the Labor Party, Shimon Peres.

Commentators have trawled over almost every aspect of the Rabin-Peres relationship (or running feud, as several refer to it). To his credit, Rabinovich, who clearly leans to the side of Rabin, tries his best to be even-handed on it. In truth, neither Rabin nor Peres covered themselves in much glory with the rivalry coming to dominate many aspects of the centre-left camp in Israel from 1974 until Rabin’s assassination in 1995.

In 1977, Peres succeeded Rabin as leader of the Labor Party and it would take Rabin 15 long years to wrestle back the position from his successor. This despite Peres’s failure to win the 1977 election, or to secure an outright victory in the 1981, 1984 and 1988 elections. Indeed, paradoxically after each electoral failure, Peres was somehow actually able to tighten his control over the Labor Party organs at the expense of Rabin.

In one of the most telling and emotive passages in the book, Rabinovich summarises Rabin’s position in 1977 and his route back to power:

Failed leaders are rarely given a second chance. Rabin was to be an exception. By responding to adversity with tenacity, taking full advantage of his skills, and acquiring the political toolbox he had so glaringly lacked during his term as prime minister, Rabin would first re-establish a leadership position for himself in the Labour Party and then go on to build a stronger persona in the Israeli public mind as ‘Mr Security.’ What Rabin lacked in charisma he compensated for with his authority, directness and integrity. A six-year tenure as a popular, authoritative minister of defence would be the perfect platform for regaining the leadership of the Labor Party and the premiership.

As Rabinovich recounts, Rabin’s route back to power was not without self-inflicted wounds. Rabin’s initial support for Ariel Sharon’s Lebanon adventure in 1982 was a case in point. Rabin and the Labor Party found itself out of power for the first time during a major war and their responses to developments were often muddled and hampered by the lack of reliable information from the Likud-led government and from the Ministry of Defence.

Rabin’s second misstep was his handling of the first Palestinian intifada, which broke out in December 1987. Rabin was all too slow to understand the political significance of developments, instead viewing it as simply as another round of violence in the Occupied Territories.

His attempted forceful suppression of the intifada was quite simply wrong on several different levels. Eventually, he came to understand its importance and moved towards trying to start a dialogue with the Palestinians. One of the strangest aspects of this dialogue was Rabin’s secret meetings with the leaders of newly formed Hamas.

Following the failure of the ‘Dirty (or Smelly) Exercise’ in 1990, in which Peres successfully brought down the national unity government but subsequently failed to set up a government led by the Labor Party, Peres’s days as leader were numbered. For once, Rabin was patient and with the help of two spoiler candidates defeated Peres to become leader of the Labor Party in 1992.

Rabinovich’s judgement on the 1992 Israeli election is spot on. Despite Rabin and Labor emerging as the largest party (44 seats to the Likud’s 32) the election result at coalition block level was much closer. Indeed, Rabin had to rely upon the Israeli Arab parties to help give him a blocking majority over the members of the Likud coalition block.

As the author reminds us, this development was vital as it allowed the ultra-orthodox party, Shas, to effectively cross the floor and join a Rabin-led coalition. Without the participation of Shas, Rabin would have in all probability opted for yet another national unity government and the historic developments that took place from 1992 to 1995 would not have happened.

Arguably the most interesting and revealing part of the book comes in its final sections, particularly in aspects of the peace process from 1992 to 1995 that came within the remit of the author during his time as Israel’s Ambassador to the US. Although Rabinovich does not offer anything that is not already known by experts, he does add some meat to the bones about the various offers Rabin made to the Syrians. Some readers might find it shocking that Rabin, who stated so clearly during the 1992 election campaign that Israel would not come down from the Golan Heights, so readily and quickly offered to trade them for peace with Syria, on the condition that Israel’s security interests were protected.

Rabinovich carefully navigates the narrative of the book between the various tracks of the peace process that Rabin instigated: Syria, the Palestinians and the Jordanians. In some respects, Rabin remained a very typical Israeli prime minister. He very much preferred bi-lateral over multi-lateral negotiations with the Arabs and believed that he should only negotiate on one track of the peace process at a time. The political costs and risks of making painful concessions on more than a single track at any given time were simply too great for the cautious Rabin.

Once again, the rivalry between Rabin and Peres raised its ugly head during the peacemaking years of the Rabin-led government. It was in the negotiations with King Hussein of Jordan that the animosity really came to a head. As Rabinovich recounts events:

But Peres, who conducted himself impressively during his meeting with the king, couldn’t resist the urge to assume credit for the unfolding process with Jordan. Peres was on a roll after the Oslo Accords. He was the architect of the agreement, and he asked for and received a lot of credit for the breakthrough. The balance between him and Rabin shifted in his favour, and he was pushing ahead. Peres made no secret of his supposed secret meeting with the king, and in short order the media reported it. The king was incensed and told Rabin that if he wanted to move forward with Jordan, he would have to keep Peres out of the picture. Rabin was quite happy to do so. Here was an opportunity to retake the initiative in leading the peace process.

Things can’t have been easy for Rabin at the time with his long-term political rival vying for credit for the peace process, increased violence in Israel with suicide attacks from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and the Americans applying pressure to make additional political concessions to the Arabs. No wonder that the veteran American diplomat, Henry Kissinger, characterised Rabin as being politically lonely.

Rabinovich argues that Rabin, while still cautious and concerned with Israeli security needs, was transformed from a leader into a statesman. This is very much the theme of the final part of the book as Israel became more politically polarised and where radical elements opposed to the peace process gained additional traction and started making plans to end the Rabin/Peres drive for peace, whatever it took.

When I wrote my book on Benjamin Netanyahu, Rabin’s political rival at the time, I was struck by what I saw as an abandonment of the centre-ground by the young Likud leader. Rabin, as Rabinovich points out, was never completely as ease with the leftist element of the peace camp in Israel and emphasises his more pragmatic centrist approach to peacemaking far more than for example, Shimon Peres.

The final part of the book looks at the lead up to, and the events surrounding the assassination of Rabin. Here the author takes off the gloves and we can feel his anger at the intelligence and security mistakes that characterised the road to the murder. The author poses the key question as to how Rabin’s killer was able to act, but we still do not fully understand the answer to it. He writes:

How could a man like Yigal Amir, known to the GSS [General Security Services – the Shin Bet], get close enough to the prime minister of Israel to assassinate him? Israel is a country deeply familiar with terrorism and violence and well versed in security measures. Amir’s success can be explained by the impact of a mind-set, by a series of accidents and near misses, and by sheer incompetence.

The assassination was one of the most traumatic moments in Israeli democracy. The political judgement of Peres, Rabin’s successor as Prime Minister, is correctly questioned by Rabinovich. Many felt that Peres was wrong not to call a snap election after the assassination.

Such an election would have in all likelihood resulted in a landslide victory for Peres and the Labor Party. It would have also probably ended the political career of Benjamin Netanyahu. Peres, however, as the author points out ‘wanted to be elected on his own terms rather than as Rabin’s avenger’. It turned out to be a tragic mistake for the centre-left in Israel and for the prospects of the Oslo Accords.

As a scholar of the Arab-Israeli conflict the most interesting part of the book was the brief epilogue during which Rabinovich talks of the ‘clash of narratives over Rabin’s legacy, heritage and memory’. The ‘what if’ counter-narrative to Rabin’s death is something that I continue to think about and included in my own book on Netanyahu.

It was by no means certain that Rabin would have won the 1996 election. Israel’s first direct election for prime minister would have been very close. At the time of Rabin’s death, he was trailing Netanyahu in the opinion polls. And had he won, it was also by no means certain that he would have wanted to or been able to conclude a final-status deal with Yasser Arafat.

Rabinovich doesn’t really try to offer definitive answers to the above counter-narratives. It is, however, a fitting way to conclude a wonderfully incisive and informative book on one of modern Middle East’s most important military and political leaders.

This review was published in the summer issue of Foreign Policy (No. 2/2017) . Samy Cohen offers an analysis of Itamar Rabinovitch's book Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman (Yale University Press, 2017, 376 pages).

Yitzhak Rabin was not a charismatic character like David Ben Gurion or Menahem Begin. He was no less a visionary who understood in 1992 that Israel could not continue to dominate indefinitely another people without losing its democratic character. He was surprised: nothing predestined him to take this path, he the tough Sabra, the conqueror of the Six Day War, the implacable Minister of Defense who severely repressed the intifada of 1987. He courageously opened a new era for his country, and paid for it with his life when he was assassinated by an extremist settler on 4 November 1995.

Itamar Rabinovich, a man of unusual destiny, devotes a finely detailed and well-documented biography. And for good reason. He was close to Rabin, who in 1993 appointed him Israel's ambassador to Washington and head negotiator with Hafez al-Assad’s Syria. Rabinovich retraces Rabin's journey since his birth in Jerusalem in 1922 and his involvement in the Haganah during the War of Independence, where he was appointed as a brigade commander. This shy officer acceded to the post of chief of staff in 1963, not without difficulties, his relations with Ben Gurion and Golda Meir not being excellent. The military successes won in June 1967 earned him an immense esteem among the Israelis. Subsequently, he was appointed to the post of ambassador in Washington, and the resignation of Golda Meir in 1974 propelled him to the head of the government. But the record of this first experience as Prime Minister was not brilliant. He struggled to impose himself in public opinion and in his party. Rabinovich shows his indecision in the face of the rise of religious settlers, whom he nevertheless execrated. The political coalition games placed him at the head of the Ministry of Defense, where he officiated several years, building his reputation of "Mister Security".

The Oslo chapter, probably the most important one, reveals a Rabin "ambivalent by nature" and always suspicious of Shimon Peres, his old rival. Interestingly, the interim agreements were signed by the foreign ministers at the White House, and it was in order to avoid the fact that the rival alone was able to win the laurels of this "breakthrough" that Rabin decided to go there, to the dismay of Peres who considered momentarily to cancel his participation in the ceremony.

Itamar Rabinovich analyzes in epilogue the sequelae of the violent death of Rabin. Likud, his leader Benyamin Netanyahu in the lead, will constantly minimize his work and make him bear responsibility for the attack on the Altalena, the ship that in 1948 carried arms to the Irgun. Ben-Gurion had ordered the sinking to avoid a phenomenon of militias escaping the control of the political power. The unit charged with this task was none other than that of a young captain named Rabin.

The author would like to emphasize, in conclusion, that Rabin was not a "dove leader", that his main concern was the security of Israel, an objective that could only be achieved by peace. Certainly, but the great "doomed leaders" of the Zionist left (like Aryeh Eliav, Matti Peled, Uri Avnery, and many others) have been working since 1967 in the same spirit. Paradoxically it is he, and no other, that the peace camp has chosen as an icon.

Israel’s Independent Introvert

The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin robbed Israel of a rare politician able to make peace with the Palestinians, Colin Shindler

The Israeli novelist, Amos Oz, described Yitzhak Rabin as ‘not a charismatic man, but rather a logical, skilful captain’. Rabin was both a political dove and a military hawk, who never pretended to be a far-sighted intellectual, had no small talk and even found canvassing possible supporters ‘a herculean task’. Yet such an introverted figure was able to make peace with Israel’s historic enemy, Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization .

Itamar Rabinovich, a Tel Aviv university academic and expert on Syria, was appointed by Rabin to take charge of the vexed negotiations with Hafez al-Assad’s authoritarian regime. Few are better placed to write an account of Rabin’s life and times. Ambassador Rabinovich rightly argues that Rabin’s journey should be measured by his accomplishments in life and not by the manner of his death at the hands of a member of the far right in November 1995, following a peace rally .

In this excellent biography, it is Rabin’s sense of independence that predominates. He regarded the soldier and politician Moshe Dayan as ‘totally reckless’ in the way he dealt with people. He refused to bow to David Ben-Gurion’s will and was thus marginalised. Instead of promotion, he was sent to Camberley Staff College in the UK. Rabin regarded his great rival, Shimon Peres, as ‘an indefatigable intriguer’ and he stood up to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the leading US pro-Israel advocacy organization .

Unlike many Israeli politicians, he did not cling to office as the be-all and end-all of his existence. Before the Entebbe raid in 1976 – in which Israeli commandos rescued hijacked passengers from Idi Amin’s Uganda – Rabin dictated his resignation letter in case things did not go to plan. It is also well known that he resigned as prime minister in early 1977, when his wife was found to possess a technically illegal foreign bank account .

He was appointed Chief of Staff of the Israel Defence Force in 1964, but Israel’s lightning victory during the Six Day War three years later was received by Rabin with mixed feelings .

Shortly afterwards, Rabin was appointed ambassador to the United States, but had a tortuous relationship with Israel’s foreign minister, Abba Eban. Despite his success as a diplomat, he was passed over several times for posts by prime minister Golda Meir .

One factor was that he was not well disposed towards the West Bank settlers. Keeping Ramallah was not ‘a question of life and death’ for him. During his first term as prime minister from 1974, he labelled the settler movement as ‘a cancer in the social and democratic tissue of the state of Israel’. He disparaged their claim to be a reincarnation of the 1948 generation and argued that maintaining control over a million and a half Palestinians posed a demographic threat to the Zionist experiment .

After numerous electoral failures by Peres, Rabin was elected once more as Labour party leader and duly won the 1992 election. Rabinovich was appointed initially to assess the feasibility of negotiating with the Syrians, rather than with the Palestinians. Yet when the Syrians presented their first paper on the situation, the word ‘Israel’ was omitted .

Rabinovich argues that Rabin wished first to explore the Syrian option and offered the Americans a ‘hypothetical, conditional willingness’ to withdraw from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, despite the fact that Peres would oppose him and that many of the Golan inhabitants were actually Labour voters .

The Syrian approach was maximalist, vague and intransigent. Despite this, the American interlocutors had, crucially, not kept in reserve Rabin’s potential offer to withdraw. They blandly placed it on the negotiating table to no avail. It was this action that persuaded Rabin, according to Rabinovich, to emphasize instead the Palestinian track, which eventually led to the Oslo Accord in 1993 and the handshake with Arafat on the White House lawn .

The black cloud of Rabin’s murder in 1995 hangs over this book. Rabinovich argues that the assassination was a watershed in the move to the right and that the wider circle of those responsible for the incitement before the killing have still not been brought to justice. This well-crafted work raises profoundly moral questions about Israel’s trajectory and what could have been rather than what is .

Published in History Today September 2017

Forging the war for peace: The journey from hawkish general to peacemaker

Review of "Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman", by Danielle Celermajer

Australian Book Review, September 2017

On the final page of his biography of Yitzhak Rabin (1922–95), Itamar Rabinovich tells us that he contemplated an alternative subtitle for his book, ‘The image of his native landscape’. Because this particular life was so closely tied to a political project, it is similarly tempting to read Rabin’s biography as a story of the State of Israel, and to respond in kind: first ac-cording to your position on that State, and second according to how you evaluate Rabin’s performance against your ideal Israel. If you regard the 1948 War of Independence as an act of violent colonialism, then Rabin’s role in the Palmach (the proto-Israeli military) damns him to complicity, one that be-came active perpetration when he took on the task of transforming the infant Israeli Defence Force into an ironclad machine, and leading it, as chief of staff, in the 1967 Six Day War. If you regard the Oslo Accords as a betrayal of the Jewish people, on either religious or security grounds, then as the prime minister who authorised them, Rabin, as image, becomes the reckless traitor. It is a good thing that the author decided to discard this subtitle, because if one were to read the book thus, one may as well not read it at all. This is, after all, Israel we are talking about, and for almost every reader that die will already be cast.

Unless one is seduced by the ideology of self-creation, it is something of a truism that we are all shaped by our social, cultural, political, and economic contexts. What makes the story of a life intriguing are those mysterious junctures where it diverges from the foretold plot; what Hannah Arendt called the spaces between past and future, where authentic thinking and action occur, and the new comes into the world. In Rabin’s case, the new were the moves to make peace with Israel’s Arab neighbours, including the Palestinians under Yasser Arafat, and the Syrians under Hafez al-Assad. I leave to the side here the myriad criticisms one might level against what Israel envisaged that peace ought to look like, and how appallingly the Palestinians have fared since Oslo. One can always ask why Rabin was not Mandela, or an unalloyed universalist. More interest-ing is to ask why he was Rabin; how he moved from being a hawkish general and prime minister of a state whose political identity was forged in trauma, religious nationalism, and existential threat, to, in his own words, forging the war for peace.

There are intimations of a human-ist universalism from the outset. When Rabin wrote in his autobiography about the psychological difficulties that his soldiers experienced expelling Palestinian civilians from Lod and Ramla during the 1948 War, he explains their suffering as the moral conflict such actions pro-voked for young Jewish men ‘inculcated with values such as international fraternity and humaneness’. Interestingly, like the censors who edited Rabin’s auto-biography, when Rabinovich recounts the reflection, he omits these last words. And then there was Rabin’s radical mother – ‘red’ Rosa Cohen – who broke with both her wealthy orthodox Jewish family and the Communist Party in Russia, and moved to Jerusalem, not because she was a Zionist (on the contrary), but because she thought it might offer her the space to create a life. Amidst a story dominated by forceful and frequently egoistic men, one senses the imprint of Rosa’s independence of mind on her son’s, especially when he reached an age beyond her forty-seven years.

Unlike the other ‘great men’ in the history of Israel alongside whom Rabin migrated from military to political leadership, Rabin did not lead his life teleologically, set from the outset on the march towards a pinnacle. Each identity – commander, general, chief of staff, ambassador to the United States, member of parliament, prime minister (1974–77, 1992–95) – grew incrementally from the one preceeding it, and he occupied each in a similarly organic (and thus often imperfect) way.

Oded Eran, review of "Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman"

Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, Pages 1-3 | Published online: 22 Sep 2017

Oded Eran is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv, and retired Israeli diplomat

Writing a biography of anyone important, especially a political figure, is always a daunting task. The would-be biographer generally amasses thousands of pages of documents and newspaper clippings, and an array of books. If the subject of the biography is a person who lived in the recent past, the writer might have even known him or her, or at least have interviewed people who had. Encapsulating all that material into a book of 271 pages is an incredibly difficult undertaking. Yet Professor Itamar Rabinovich, of Tel Aviv University, who worked with Yitzhak Rabin personally—having served as Israel's ambassador in Washington during Rabin's time in office—has produced a brilliant, essay-like book, which is more than a mere biography. Rooted in an excellent historical and political analysis of the environment in which the subject of his study developed into a statesman of international repute Rabinovich's work is a profile of one of the most important leaders of Israel in modern times .

Israel's first four prime ministers were “professional” politicians who were born outside the country and began their political life in pre-state Zionist movements. Rabin was the first to be born in the Land of Israel, and the first professional soldier to become prime minister .

Rabinovich charts Rabin's climb up the military and then political ranks. It was an arduous path, strewn with obstacles. Even after reading this biography, Rabin's success in reaching the pinnacle of power in the military, and later in politics, remains something of an enigma. He was successful where more charismatic and accomplished Israeli military commanders-turned-politicians, such as Yigal Alon and Moshe Dayan, failed. With all their political skills and personal charm, neither wound up becoming prime minister. A range of factors including age differences, political circumstances, and personal party affiliations resulted in Rabin succeeding where the others failed, and in his eventual election as prime minister .

Shimon Peres was Rabin's longstanding rival, and a bitter one at that. Rabinovich takes the reader through the almost-lifelong personal and political competition between the two titans. When their race began, Peres had the upper hand. At just twenty-nine years old, he was already at the center of the decision-making process on security issues, aiding founding father David Ben-Gurion. At less than forty years old, Peres became the architect of Israel's security establishment by ensuring its reliance (until 1967) on French conventional weapons and nuclear support .

In an ironic twist of history, the close association with Ben-Gurion that enabled Dayan and Peres to play key roles early on in Israel's statehood and in their own lives, and their total commitment to the “old man,” were key reasons for their failures and Rabin's success. Peres believed until the end of his political life that the fact that the Labor Party chose Rabin over him had to do with his (and Dayan's) decision to follow Ben-Gurion and bolt from the party in 1965 to create Rafi. Though he “returned home” four years later, Peres believed that the Labor Party elders could never really forgive and forget (an assertion based on a long conversation between this reviewer and Peres). Peres could not bring himself to believe that those elders were simply unconvinced of his electability as compared to that of Rabin .

The other, more significant, journey mapped by Rabinovich is Rabin's transformation from a military leader and thinker to a statesman who brokered peace between Israel and its neighbors. This was a difficult undertaking for Rabin, not only because of his personal background and the early years of his professional life, but also because of his ambivalent nature and his disinclination toward making bold decisions rapidly. It took Rabin a long time—and the military incursions into Lebanon and, later, the first intifada during his previous tenure as prime minister—to recognize the limitations of Israel's military might in solving problems with its neighbors. In a way, the story of Rabin is that of the never-ending tension, certainly for Israel, between military power and capability on the one hand, and soft power and diplomacy on the other. Rabin, as Israeli ambassador in Washington, had tense relations with Israel's top diplomat, Foreign Minister Abba Eban, whom he bypassed by dealing directly with Golda Meir, the prime minister. I was therefore elated when in 1991, in between roles in governments, Rabin accepted my invitation to speak to the new Foreign Ministry cadets (I was in between posts at that time .)

The peace process that began early in Rabin's second term as prime minister after the 1992 elections encompassed all the various elements that made Rabin develop as a leader. Rabinovich, Rabin's negotiator on the Syrian track and ambassador in Washington, is uniquely qualified to write about events during that period. He sheds light on Rabin's analysis of the prospects of success on the Palestinian track as opposed to the Syrian one; Washington's different roles in these two tracks; and the role of then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Peres in his decision-making process. Rabin opted for the Palestinian track (which was mostly Peres' responsiblity) in part because choosing to go for “Syria first” could have led to accusations that the prime minister was obstructing an opportunity for an historical reconciliation with the Palestinians .

It is interesting to note, now that Syria has been wracked by civil war for six years, that between 1992–2000, in the minds of both Rabin and Ehud Barak, the Syrian option actually competed with the Palestinian issue, which is at the core of Israel's conflict with the Arab world. Barak almost abandoned the Palestinian track in late 1999/early 2000, although, in my capacity as head of the negotiating team with the Palestinians, I advised him against doing so. His fear that Peres would accuse him of being an obstacle to an agreement with the Palestinians led Barak to reluctantly, and against his own better judgment, approve the Taba negotiations, after he had called for new elections and Peres had threatened to oppose him .

After Rabin's assassination, questions were raised as to how to understand his legacy. Rabinovich is correct when he emphasizes the inner struggle in Rabin's own mind over the quest for reconciliation between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Rabin was neither a dove nor a hawk. His legacy, which should be upheld and cherished by the nation, is the willingness and determination to explore all possibilities for peace, but always with a strong sense of realism, no patience for dogma, and, yes, a measure of modesty.

Hard Questions, Tough Answers (10.2.17) - Autumn recommended reading about the Middle East – with Yossi Alper

The recently published Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman by a former colleague at Tel Aviv University, Itamar Rabinovich, is truly an intimate portrait. Rabinovich was Rabin’s ambassador in Washington and his chief negotiator with Syria. He was also Rabin’s neighbor in north Tel Aviv’s Ramat Aviv neighborhood. He was a peace process insider under Rabin and probably logged more hours one-on-one with Hafez Assad’s chief negotiator Walid Muallem (now Syria’s foreign minister) than any similar peace-related instance in Israeli diplomatic history .

Rabin’s November 1995 assassination in many ways marked a catastrophic turning point in Israeli political and diplomatic history. Benjamin Netanyahu’s subsequent election ushered in the current extended period (with the exception of short intervals of rule by Barak, Sharon and Olmert) of Likud rule. The historical background is provided by distinguished British historian Colin Shindler in his The Rise of the Israeli Right: from Odessa to Hebron .

Book review by Ken Stein, Emory University

Published in: Israel Studies Review, Volume 32, Issue 2, Winter 2017: pp. 171-173.

One of Israel’s finest senior Middle East historians has written this excellent biography. Distinguished among Israel’s 13 prime ministers for many reasons, Yitzhak Rabin was the only one who also served the state as its chief of staff, ambassador to Washington, and defense minister. And he was the only prime minister to have been assassinated while in office.

During Rabin’s second tenure as prime minister, from 1993 to 1996, Itamar Rabinovich served as Israel’s ambassador to Washington and lead negotiator with Syria, and through those positions he acquired a deep understanding of Rabin. Clearly, Rabinovich admires Rabin. He relishes lauding his integrity, tenacity, and humanity and eagerly delivers not so subtle rebukes to Rabin’s political competitors and detractors.

Unlike many other prime ministers, Rabin could be shy and taciturn. He disliked endless hours of political infighting or credit-taking. He did not suffer fools gladly and would seek advice from the lowest or most ordinary of researchers or advisers. Rabinovich provides detailed accounts

of Rabin’s interactions with others in Israel’s decision-making establishment, where he had personal and political wrestling matches. Rabin did not relish Golda Meir’s stubborn postponement of his political future, or the more meddlesome intrigues of Shimon Peres as both a partner and competitor over a lifetime, or the mean-spirited Bibi Netanyahu, who ‘legitimized’ public hatred against Rabin’s government in the two months before his assassination (227–228).

Throughout his life, Rabin remained an upright pragmatist, a centrist, and a staunch protector of Israel’s inalienable right to shape its own destiny and to choose the time, method, and content for its actions. Like tens of thousands of other important and average people who volunteered their careers, lives, and resources in order to grow Zionism, to establish and protect the state, Rabin literally put Israel on his back. For Rabin, being prepared, preserving Jewish life, ensuring Israeli prerogative, and understanding Israel’s geography mattered immensely.

We are treated to key moments in Israel’s past when Rabin’s decisions left their mark, entwined with Zionism’s national evolution during his half-century of public service. In Israel’s pre-state period, Rabin literally shouldered personal responsibility: while liberating captured Jewish immigrants from British incarceration, he carried a toddler on his back as they fled the Athlit detention camp in 1946. Rabin and his Palmach volunteers freed several dozen immigrants that night.

As IDF chief of staff in the 1960s, Rabin, along with his colleagues, reorganized Israel’s military preparations, capping it off with the Israeli Air Force’s detailed planning for the enormously successful destruction of the Egyptian Air Force on the first day of the June 1967 War. Israel’s unexpected acquisition of land in the war changed its strategic reality for the next half-century. The war solidified Israel’s existence in the face of a hostile Arab world and brought with it territories filled with options.

As ambassador to Washington, in September 1970 Rabin advised Richard Nixon that a show of Israeli military strength in broad daylight could deter Syrian armed forces from moving into Jordan during the civil war there. Nixon ordered elements of the US Sixth Fleet to approach Israel’s coast, while an Israeli military column very visibly and slowly marched up Israel’s center, ultimately dissuading Syrian adventurism. Rabin knew that a more pragmatic Jordan had greater value on Israel’s eastern front than a radical Syrian-controlled regime. Six years later, as prime minister, Rabin oversaw the mission that liberated more than 100 Jewish hostages who were being held by Palestinian terrorists at the Entebbe airport in Uganda.

In March 1977, Rabin met Jimmy Carter at the White House. Carter, driven by Zbigniew Brzezinski’s dislike of any Israeli presence in the territories, dearly wanted a comprehensive negotiating process to commence. Both of them advised Rabin to negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and to attend an international Middle East peace conference. Rabin was not inclined to acquiesce. He had already extracted from the Ford administration in 1975 a promise that Israel would not have to negotiate with the PLO unless it renounced terrorism and recognized Israel.

Rabin did not want Israel’s negotiating prerogatives and diplomatic outcomes to be predetermined by all of the Arab states sitting across the table in one delegation, which would make impossible demands of Israel. He preferred to negotiate with Arab neighbors bilaterally. Carter was livid: he prodded Rabin further in a private conversation, demanding Rabin’s fallback position in order to get negotiations started. However, Rabin could not countenance the American president discarding a predecessor’s promise that Israel would not have to negotiate with the PLO.

What Rabin did not know as he returned to Israel from his unpleasant visit to Washington was the Carter administration’s plan to convene an international conference in the summer or fall of 1977 where both Moscow and Washington would have roles to play. Standing up to Carter was good for Israel, but perhaps not so good for the Labor Party, which lost in the May 1977 Knesset elections.

After becoming prime minister again in 1992, Rabin believed, according to Rabinovich, that “making peace at this point—having reached the peak of his career and as he approached the end of his life—was a natural extension of his early career as a soldier” (173). He signed the Oslo Accords with the PLO because he believed that the main threats to Israel’s national security lay in the Middle East’s eastern flank, in Iran and Iraq. Opportunities to change Israel’s relationship with Syria and the PLO had presented themselves, but the option with Syria had not materialized, while that with the PLO did.

In concluding his biography, Rabinovich points a firm finger at Israeli society and subsequent Israeli leaders for their failure to punish the voices that called for Rabin’s murder and to put limitations on political excesses. In recognizing a man who placed Israel on his back, Rabinovich’s book asks the question, who next can lead Israel with tenacity, dignity, a measure of humility, and long-term vision, while putting the state ahead of personal well-being?

Itamar Rabinovich’s Biography of Yitzhak Rabin Wins Top Prize in Institute Book Competition

Washington, D.C. – November 30

Itamar Rabinovich's Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman was awarded the gold medal in The Washington Institute's 2017 Book Prize competition, the Middle East policy think tank announced today. Rabinovich, an accomplished historian who served formerly as president of Tel Aviv University and Israeli ambassador to the United States, will receive the award and an accompanying $25,000 prize .

The year 2017 marks the tenth anniversary of the Book Prize, which honors outstanding scholarship on the Middle East in the English language. “The Washington Institute Book Prize has always highlighted books that both illuminate the Middle East for an American audience and provide practical insights for policymakers,” said Institute Executive Director Robert Satloff, the Howard P. Berkowitz Chair in U.S. Middle East Policy. “It is fitting that Ambassador Rabinovich, a man who is both a scholar and a diplomat, receives the gold prize for this outstanding work .”

In its gold prize commendation, the judges wrote: “Rabinovich, a distinguished historian, rescues Rabin from the many self-serving legends of Rabin. His is an unfailingly accurate portrait that draws upon new documents, but also distills four years of personal observation: The author served as Rabin’s ambassador in Washington. Rare insights abound in this admiring but acute telling of Rabin’s unlikely journey from hawkish soldier to world statesman. While the peace Rabin sought remains elusive, not so Rabin, whose puzzle has been solved by Israel’s leading scholar-witness.” Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman is published by Yale University Press .

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Review of Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman by John Waterbuy

Foreign Affairs, March / April 2018 issue

In 1995, near the end of his tenure as Israel’s prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Jewish zealot. As with all high-profile assassinations, one asks, futilely, what might have been. Rabin had guided Israel through the Oslo Accords and a treaty with Jordan and had engaged in a long-distance dance with President Hafez al-Assad of Syria before concluding that Assad was not ready for peace. In this thorough book, Rabinovich, who served for a time as Rabin’s point person on Syria and as Israel’s ambassador to the United States, portrays Rabin as old school: a military man from 1941 on. He was harsh in his treatment of Palestinians during the war in 1948 and then again, 40 years later, during the first intifada. He pushed for the development of Israel’s nuclear arsenal. Yet he saw Israel’s security as inextricably linked to peace with all its neighbors. He was not in favor of giving up all of the West Bank, occupied by Israel in 1967, but he knew that hanging on to it would mean that Israel would remain forever a garrison state. Had he survived, Rabin would have been at loggerheads with Likudniks and neoconservatives in Washington, who have long wanted to separate the Palestinian issue from broader questions of regional security .

Book Review // Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman

Saint, Sinner, Sabra

BY DAVID K. SHIPLER April 7, 2017 in 2017 March-April, Arts & Culture, Featured, Politics

A double myth about Yitzhak Rabin has prevailed since his assassination in 1995. For the Israeli right, his peacemaking attempts were and still are evidence of traitorous subversion. For the Israeli left, and especially to much of the outside world, his memory is crowned with rare nobility. He is either a Neville Chamberlain or a Nelson Mandela, a villainous appeaser or a creative visionary, poised either to destroy Israel or to save it .

Rabin fit into neither category. He was a paradox, as inventive leaders often are. His long history as a tough and skillful warrior informed his evolving quest for guarded compromise with the Arabs—Jordan, Syria and the Palestinians in particular—as the best hope for Israel’s long-term security. By the end, when a Jewish extremist gunned him down, he had demonstrated that the obligation of war and the yearning for peace could coexist in the same person. And in the same country, as it could be said of Israel itself .

The point is made by Rabin’s latest biographer, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, Itamar Rabinovich, a respected historian of the Middle East who served as negotiator in Rabin’s failed attempt at a peace agreement with Syria in the 1990s. Rabinovich notes at the end of Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman, “At some point I considered as a subtitle for this book a line written by the poet Shaul Tchernichovsky: ‘The image of his native landscape.’” Rabin was “the quintessential sabra,” Rabinovich writes, with “a rough exterior concealing an inner sensitivity.” He was “a political dove and a military hawk .”

Rabin demonstrated this repeatedly. In 1982, with his Labor Party in opposition, he refrained from voicing his misgivings about Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s invasion of Lebanon because, as a former chief of staff, he believed that once in a war, “it was imperative to win it,” Rabinovich writes. Yet the politician in him “had to juggle his statements according to the war’s ebb and flow,” and he was widely criticized when he urged the army “to tighten the siege of Beirut .”

Rabin had no taste for political deal-making, an aversion with lasting costs. As prime minister in 1974, he failed to mobilize his party and coalition partners to counter the rise of the religio-nationalist settlement movement Gush Emunim, whose heirs now populate today’s right-wing government. Rabinovich faults him for not “taking bold initiatives and sweeping the country with the vision of a young prime minister representing a new era in Israeli politics.” At that time, “he was cautious by nature, and incrementalist. As a political leader he lacked confidence and experience .”

He gained his footing in his second stint as prime minister from 1992 to 1995. Ready for those bold initiatives, he and his persistent rival, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, explored two tracks: Syria, which Rabin decided should come first, and the Palestinians, with whom Peres’s aides had been secretly negotiating. The Palestinian track culminated in the Oslo Accords and a partial Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. Syria became a tantalizing, frustrating effort that Rabin eventually abandoned .

Rabinovich knows a lot about those years, during which he served as Rabin’s note-taker in high-level meetings and conducted talks in Washington (always in the presence of American officials) with Walid Muallem, then the ambassador from Syria to the United States. Rabinovich developed a scholarly expertise on Syria, and makes excellent use of his personal experience to provide a fresh account of the Israeli efforts to get Syrian president Hafez al-Assad to display the public diplomacy and full recognition that would persuade Israelis to give up the Golan Heights, captured from Syria during the 1967 war.

In August 1993, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher took Rabin’s offers and conditions to Assad, and while Assad agreed in principle, Rabinovich reports, he waffled on key details, rejecting the “large measure of normalization” Rabin had demanded at the beginning of a phased withdrawal. The Americans reacted positively to Assad’s acceptance of “the basic equation,” but Rabin was looking for a resolution he could sell to the Israeli public: an acceptance of Israel as complete as Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat’s dramatic opening had been in 1977. Rightly or wrongly, Rabin concluded that the Syrian track led only to futility .

Rabinovich’s creditable and workmanlike narrative moves efficiently and often concisely. The context he offers is especially illuminating on the run-up to the 1967 war (a good primer for those unfamiliar with the history); the intricacies of Israeli politics (arcane except to readers already knowledgeable); and Rabin’s hopeful, tragic final years and months. It is a useful sketch of history, not a psychological study, but in the book’s plain accounting, some of Rabin’s reflective nature filters through. More of his contemplative side would have enriched the portrait .

Rabin demonstrated his “inner sensitivity” most strikingly toward his own soldiers. He observed, in a speech after the Six-Day War, that even in a nation “swept by joy” at the victory, “we encounter again and again a strange phenomenon among the fighters. They cannot be fully happy…The fighters in the front lines saw with their own eyes not just the glory of victory but also its price—their comrades fell next to them, covered by blood. And I know that the terrible price paid by the enemy has also deeply affected many of them .”

In a passage deleted by censors from his 1979 memoirs but published in The New York Times, Rabin describes his Palmach unit’s expulsion of Palestinian civilians from the towns of Lod and Ramle during the 1948 War of Independence. “Psychologically, this was one of the most difficult actions we undertook,” he writes in the excerpt quoted by Rabinovich. Inexplicably, Rabinovich then omits a telling paragraph in which Rabin laments, “Great suffering was inflicted upon the men taking part in the eviction action [who] included youth movement graduates, who had been inculcated with values such as international fraternity and humaneness.” Some refused to participate, Rabin recalls, and “prolonged propaganda activities were required after the action, to remove the bitterness of these youth movement groups, and explain why we were obliged to undertake such a harsh and cruel action .”

Those remarkable lines make Rabin seem self-absorbed, but they contain his paradox, an altruistic self-interest that drove him to realize how Israelis suffer by making Arabs suffer. That sensibility, essential for peace, has practically died with him as Israeli politics has hurtled to the right.

The tragedy of Yitzhak Rabin: Israel's gruff soldier-statesman was the last best hope for peace

by Avi Shlaim / Prospect Magazine, March 14, 2017

On the evening of 4th November 1995, at the end of a peace rally in Tel Aviv, a Jewish fanatic named Yigal Amir shot and killed the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. In Rabin’s jacket pocket was a neatly folded sheet of paper with the words of the song he had just sung—“The Song of Peace.” It was later found stained with the 73-year-old’s blood, pierced by a bullet.

Amir wanted to punish Rabin for signing the 1993 Oslo Accord with Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO)—and to derail the peace train altogether. Few political killings in history have been so successful. Twenty-two years on, the dream of a secure Israel and viable Palestine is a distant fantasy. The increasingly right-wing stance of the current Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, the drastic increase in Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, the weakness of Abu Mazen’s Palestinian leadership, and the periodic outbursts of violence in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Hamas-run Gaza have resulted in precious little trust on either side. Factor in Donald Trump—who campaigned on the provocative promise to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and who in a meeting in February with Netanyahu distanced himself from the two-state solution—and the lack of brave and intelligent leadership on all sides is all the more conspicuous.

It’s no wonder, then, that Rabin now has the aura of a secular saint. The epitaph on his grave—“Peacemaker”—is well deserved. Yet it does not take account of the long journey that preceded the transformation of one of Israel’s toughest military hawks into a prominent political dove.

This concise and well-rounded biography traces every stage in Rabin’s rise to the top; but it is particularly illuminating on foreign policy during his second term as prime minister, from 1992 until 1995. Itamar Rabinovich, a historian of modern Syria and former rector of Tel Aviv University, is eminently well qualified for his task. In 1992, Rabin appointed him as ambassador to the United States and chief negotiator with Syria. Rabinovich was not just an academic observer but a significant player in the diplomacy he chronicles so ably here. His closeness to Rabin, however, has its downsides. Although Rabinovich is careful not to let his biography topple into a hagiography, his sympathy is almost invariably with his friend and political mentor.

Born in Jerusalem in 1922, Rabin was the first Israeli prime minister born in British mandated Palestine. Jews born inside the country are popularly known as sabra, a cactus fruit prickly on the outside but sweet on the inside. Rabin was certainly prickly: shy, inarticulate, gruff, emotionally buttoned-up, uncomfortable with small talk and lacking in charisma. But he also possessed high intelligence, acute analytical ability and dogged determination. These qualities made him a first-rate staff officer and accounted for his steady rise through the ranks of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF)—from a young brigade commander in the 1948 war of independence to a victorious chief-of-staff in the Six-Day War of June 1967. Throughout this period, Rabin looked at Arabs mainly over the barrel of a gun.

From 1968 to 1973, Rabin served as Israel’s ambassador to the US. He was a most undiplomatic diplomat but a successful one, at least in terms of procuring money and arms. During his tenure the friendship between the two countries developed into a close strategic partnership. Yet the ambassador remained an awkward customer. Henry Kissinger noted wryly in his memoirs: “Yitzhak Rabin had many extraordinary qualities, but the gift of human relations was not one of them. If he had been handed the entire United States Strategic Air Command as a free gift he would have (a) affected the attitude that at last Israel was getting its due, and (b) found some technical shortcoming in the airplanes that made his accepting them a reluctant concession to us.”

Ambassador Rabin used all his considerable influence, in both Tel Aviv and Washington, to press for military escalation in the conflict with Egypt to compel it to sue for peace on Israel’s terms. President Gamal Abdel Nasser had launched a “war of attrition” against Israel in 1969 to try to dislodge it from Sinai. This war took the form of artillery barrages across the Suez Canal. It was protracted, costly in casualties and inconclusive. Bypassing his immediate boss, the moderate Foreign Minister Abba Eban, Rabin recommended to the cabinet the use of the Israeli air force for “deep-penetration bombing” in Egypt to bring about Nasser’s downfall. Regime change by military force is always a sign of confused thinking. Prime Minister Golda Meir followed Rabin’s advice as part of her strategy of attrition—to let Anwar Sadat, Nasser’s successor, sweat it out until he was left with no choice but to accept Israel’s dictates. Instead, Sadat launched (with Syria) the October 1973 war, which caught Israel by surprise. Although Israel eventually won, the fallout precipitated Meir’s fall from power.

Rabin was one of the very few beneficiaries of this unnecessary and costly war: he was chosen by Labour Party power brokers to succeed Meir. The accidental prime minister was 53 years old, still graceless, and politically immature. He had the mind-set of a soldier rather than a statesman, and was fixated on playing for time to rebuild the IDF. Consequently his foreign policy hardly deviated from the intransigence of the Meir era. Opportunities for resolving Israel’s dispute with its neighbours through diplomacy were frittered away in the pursuit of short-term advantage. True, an interim agreement was reached with Egypt in 1975, based on a limited Israeli pull-back from the Suez Canal. But Rabin could potentially have pursued the fully-fledged peace treaty which his right-wing successor Menachem Begin concluded with Sadat five years later. The treaty required complete Israeli withdrawal from Sinai in return for peace and elaborate security arrangements. Sadat had made it clear that he was ready for peace if Israel would return every inch of Egyptian land. Meir and Rabin, however, clung to the status quo, which was intolerable to the Arabs.

King Hussein of Jordan was left to twist in the wind. Ever since the guns had fallen silent in June 1967, the king had repeatedly offered Israel peace in return for withdrawal from the West Bank. But Israel preferred land to peace. In the three years of his first term, Rabin had eight secret meetings with the king. So there was a dialogue across the battle lines but it remained largely futile.

Rabin was brought down by a trivial matter. Leah, his wife, had kept an active bank account in Washington in violation of Israel’s currency law. She was prosecuted and made to pay a large fine. Rabin withdrew from the elections of 17th May 1977. Shimon Peres became acting prime minister but lost the elections to the right-wing Likud Party under the leadership of Menachem Begin.

The Likud victory marked a historic turning point. It put an end to nearly three decades of Labour hegemony in Israeli politics. Labour’s fall from grace was partly due to a series of scandals that exposed it as corrupt. It was also a delayed reaction to the intelligence failure that preceded the October 1973 war and the setbacks of the war’s first days.

During most of the 1980s, Rabin served as minister of defence first under Peres, his Labour Party colleague and bitter rival, and later in a Likud-led coalition government headed by ultra-nationalist Yitzhak Shamir. Rabin was dedicated to preserving the status quo on the eastern front, including the occupation. When the First Intifada broke out in 1987, he ordered the army to crush it with an iron fist, in his words, “to break their bones.”

Eventually, after witnessing the limits of military power in dealing with a political problem, Rabin came up with a plan for elections in the occupied territories. The idea was to foster a tame local Palestinian leadership as an alternative to the Tunis-based PLO. The government ostensibly agreed but Shamir’s stonewalling made sure it came to nothing. Not for the first time, and certainly not the last, the peace process was held hostage to Israel’s domestic politics. It was a striking illustration of what Kissinger meant when he said that Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic politics.

In the lead up to the June 1992 elections, Rabin managed to wrest back the leadership of the Labour Party from Peres. Rabin, known as “Mr Security,” was the only candidate who could attract a sufficient number of votes from the centre and the soft right to bring Labour back to power. Labour’s strategy was to exploit Rabin’s popular persona and to play down his party. His platform combined his security credentials with a vision for breaking the diplomatic deadlock by talks with the local Palestinian leadership, but not the PLO. He also promised to repair the relations with the US that had been badly strained by Shamir. Even with all these advantages, Rabin only won the election by a narrow margin.

Failed leaders rarely get a second chance. Rabin was determined not to repeat the mistakes of his first term. He was still preoccupied with security but he was older and wiser now, and he understood at last that time is not Israel’s friend. As he told Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, the country had two options: seek peace with security, or live by the sword forever.

From his Likud predecessors, Rabin inherited the 1991 Madrid framework that aimed at a comprehensive peace in the Middle East by proceeding simultaneously on two tracks: one Syrian and one Jordanian-Palestinian. Rabinovich explains Rabin’s reservations about negotiating with the Arabs collectively: he feared that they were bound to be radicalised by the most extreme member. What he does not tell us is that Rabin’s solution was to play off his Arab interlocutors against one another, to signal to the party he was talking to that he had other options, in order to lower Arab expectations.

“Divide and rule” is a clever ploy when fighting a war against several enemies, but it is not a sound tactic in a peace process. Peace is not a zero-sum game, where a gain by one actor entails a loss by the opponent. Both sides have to win. Rabin’s Machiavellian tactics aroused mistrust on the part of his Arab interlocutors and created a sour atmosphere.

As a former soldier, Rabin had a preference for “Syria first.” Syria was a “confrontation” state with a strong regular army, unlike the PLO, which enjoyed political legitimacy in the Arab world but posed relatively

little threat. The issue with Syria was Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights since June 1967. A deal based on land for peace could change the entire strategic landscape in Israel’s favour.

Rabin made an all-out effort, through US intermediaries, to achieve a breakthrough with Syria. He even agreed in principle to a complete withdrawal from the Golan Heights. But in return, he expected substantive concessions: elaborate security arrangements, normalisation of relations up front, and a phased withdrawal over a period of five years. President Hafez al-Assad’s response was positive in tone but ultimately failed to measure up to Rabin’s expectations. The outcome was deadlock.

Disappointment with Syria made Rabin turn his attention to the Palestinians. But now, he understood that he could not bypass the PLO in Tunis. By holding informal talks with PLO officials in Oslo, two Israeli academics created a back channel that produced the breakthrough. The talks gradually received official sanction, eventually from the sceptical prime minister.

Suspicious of his dovish subordinates, Rabin added to the Israeli delegation Joel Singer, a former colonel and a hard-headed international lawyer. Singer revoked many of the concessions his compatriots had made. Still, on orders from above, the Palestinian negotiators settled for a deal on those terms. The worst defect was that it did not require a freeze on settlements during negotiations.

The Oslo Accord entailed a repackaging rather than an end to the occupation. Basically, it accomplished three things: the PLO recognised Israel; Israel recognised the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people; and the two sides agreed to resolve their differences by peaceful means. Despite its many flaws, it constituted a historic landmark: it was the first ever agreement between the two principal parties to the century-old conflict. It amounted to a historic compromise between the Jewish and the Palestinian national movements, and the potent symbol of that compromise was the famous handshake between Rabin and Arafat at the White House on 13th September 1993.

Rabin established with King Hussein a close friendship and political partnership that culminated in a peace treaty in October 1994. The treaty was extremely popular in Israel, but not in Jordan. It was seen as the king’s peace and provoked widespread opposition. As a result, the peace between the two countries was not institutionalised; it remained dependent to a perilous degree on the two men at the top.

The assassination of Rabin was consequently a disaster for the king. Unlike Egypt, he aspired to a warm peace with Israel. Hussein spoke eloquently about their joint journey at Rabin’s funeral on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. To a journalist who saw him crying afterwards, he said: “I had to come to West Jerusalem for the first time in my life in order to bury a friend.” There was a brief pause and then he added: “I have the impression that today I have also, in some way, buried the peace.” These were prophetic words.

Had Rabin’s life not been cut tragically short, would he have reached a final peace settlement with the Palestinians? There is no way to know. What is clear is that the Israeli right, and especially the settlers, conducted a vicious and effective campaign to delegitimise Rabin and Oslo. Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud, played a leading part in the demagoguery that culminated in the assassination. In one protest against the government, he walked in front of a coffin inscribed with the words “Zionism’s murderer.” Ahead of him marched a man carrying a gallows. Worse was to follow.

On 28th September 1995, Rabin concluded an interim agreement with Arafat, popularly known as Oslo II, and a week later he presented it to the Knesset. On 5th October, the day of the vote, Likud organised a mass rally in Zion Square in Jerusalem. Netanyahu worked the crowd into a frenzy with an inflammatory speech blasting the government. At one point an image of Rabin in SS uniform was screened on the wall behind him. The rally turned violent with the mob shouting “Death to Rabin.”

Following Rabin’s killing, Peres succeeded him as Labour Party leader and prime minister. He was a mediocre politician with a record of four electoral defeats behind him. He started with a 20-point lead over Netanyahu but still blew it. Netanyahu won the May 1996 elections by less than one per cent, but this did not deter him from promptly reversing Labour’s peace policy.

During his three years in power, Netanyahu subverted Oslo and blocked the road to a final settlement by a relentless expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. He was defeated in 1999 by Labour’s Ehud Barak, another soldier who late in life turned to peacemaking. Barak posed as Rabin’s disciple and promised to return to the pot-holed road that had started at Oslo. The crunch came at the Camp David summit of July 2000. When the summit failed, Barak and Bill Clinton blamed Arafat, although they bore a far larger share of the responsibility.

Back in Israel, Barak coined the saying that “there is no Palestinian partner for peace.” This claim is belied by the historical record, but it was believed by the majority of Israelis of all political colours. With this claim, Barak virtually destroyed the peace camp in Israel, including Labour. For if there is no Palestinian partner, it makes more sense to vote for a party that promises to fight, not talk. Since 2001, Israelis have voted for parties of the right and the extreme right, while the Labour Party has shrunk to a shadow of its former self.

Netanyahu is now in his fourth term as prime minister. On 26th October 2015, soon after the 20th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination, he said: “These days there is talk of what would have happened had this or that man remained… This is irrelevant; we will forever live by the sword.”

But Israel is not doomed to live by the sword. There is another way, Rabin’s way: to explore the diplomatic avenue to peace with security. Rabin will go down in the annals of the modern Middle East as a soldier-statesman and a peacemaker. Netanyahu, by contrast, is a destroyer of dreams. He has already achieved the dubious distinction of being the most disagreeable, divisive and destructive prime minister in his country’s history. The demise of Rabin and the dominance of Netanyahu encapsulate the tragedy of Israeli politics in the last two decades.

The Long Paralysis of the Israeli Left

Assaf Sharon

November 7, 2019 Issue

Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel, by Dan Ephron

Norton, 290 pp.

Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman by Itamar Rabinovich

Yale University Press, 272 pp.

The Israeli political system is in a weird stalemate. Two general elections in under six months have so far failed to produce a governing coalition. The sticking point is entirely personal—the fate of Bejamin Netanyahu as he faces multiple criminal indictments. After more than ten years in office, Netanyahu continues to dominate Israeli politics. As the recent election results show, this is not because he enjoys the support of a solid majority of voters, but because of the lack of a persuasive alternative. Israeli liberals are cowed by the right’s political thuggery, demoralized by decades of failure, and weakened by mediocre leadership. Afraid to articulate their values and terrified of challenging Netanyahu’s nationalism, many on the left have reverted to a meaningless centrism, assuming that the only way to defeat him is by offering a more civilized, noncorrupt version of his politics .

Thus the recent elections became a referendum on Netanyahu’s divisive rhetoric, lavish lifestyle, and entanglement in various corruption scandals. But as Avner Inbar explained last spring :

Unlike his challengers in four consecutive elections, Netanyahu stands for something. While many Israelis find his actions and style odious, his opponents persistently fail to realize that in politics, a flawed something is still better than nothing.[1]

Two recent books recount the momentous events that began to shape this pattern almost a quarter-century ago .

Most Israelis above a certain age remember where they were on November 4, 1995, when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was shot at a rally in Tel Aviv by an Israeli nationalist named Yigal Amir. I was on a bus, on my way to the rally. At the time, I was a soldier on unpaid leave, and attending political rallies was not my preferred pastime. I mostly wanted to hang out with my girlfriend, and I didn’t particularly like Rabin. But in the fall of 1995, supporting the Oslo Accords, which broke a generations-long impasse by giving a measure of self-government to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, felt like a necessity .

Rabin had just signed the second Oslo agreement with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat that September, and the country was seething with opposition. For months, the spokespeople for the settlers in the occupied territories who sought to expand control over them had been ruthlessly attacking Rabin’s government and flooding the streets with protesters. His supporters were in the majority and had until then largely sat out the demonstrations. But as dissent grew more vehement, with some openly calling for Rabin’s elimination, the November 4 rally became a call to arms for defenders of the Oslo process .

“The announcement [of Rabin’s death] plunged Israel into a haze, a gloomy twilight zone where everything seemed surreal,” the journalist Dan Ephron recounts in Killing a King. There were tears and calls for dialogue, healing, and, above all, unity. Israelis who supported the Oslo Accords did not realize that these would become the sentimental instruments of their political defeat. In the following years the religious right, which had opposed peace with the Palestinians, came to dominate Israel’s politics, while advocates of reconciliation—once the country’s leading political force—were marginalized .

This was unimaginable at the time. The murder of the prime minister—a war hero and a venerated chief of staff—by a right-wing extremist might have been expected to mobilize his supporters and to undermine his opponents, who were viewed by many as having inspired it. While they did not call for or condone the murder, right-wing leaders had spared no rhetorical weapon in attacking Rabin. Stories circulated about his supposed military failings, alcoholism, mental illness, and even membership in satanic cults. But above all, he was branded a traitor .

The incitement against Rabin was not limited to the fringes. Palestinian opposition to the peace process set off an escalation in terror attacks and Israeli reprisals, and the leaders of the right-wing Likud party had no qualms about inflaming public passions in response to them. The right not only criticized the Rabin government’s policy of seeking reconciliation with the Palestinians but also cast aspersions on its motives. Rabin was regularly compared to the Nazi collaborators Vidkun Quisling and Philippe Pétain, and his government to the Judenräte (the Jewish councils that became a symbol of collusion with the Nazis). Netanyahu, Ephron writes, “aligned himself with the hardliners, the settlers and the rabble-rousers, speaking at rallies across the country where crowds branded Rabin a traitor and a murderer, and consorting with rabbis who’d urged soldiers to disobey evacuation orders” from territory ceded under the agreement. At one demonstration, Netanyahu was seen walking between a gallows and a coffin with the words “Zionism’s Murderer” on it .

Rhetoric aimed at delegitimizing the government and portraying its supporters as enemies of the people encouraged Rabin’s assassin, but Amir was a fanatic with a purpose. He believed that surrendering territory to Palestinian control was dangerous, and he recognized, as did the politicians of the right, that Rabin’s background in the military positioned him to garner public support for such a policy. As Amir later explained, “It was not a matter of revenge, or punishment or, god forbid, rage, but a matter of what stops [the peace process]. I thought a lot about it and realized that if I take out Rabin, this will stop it.”

For many Orthodox Jews, surrendering land to Arabs is not just a political mistake but a sin. Amir told the commission that investigated the assassination, “If I did not get the backing and I had not been representing many more people, I would not have acted.” By “backing,” he meant rulings by extremist rabbis that giving land to the Arabs violates religious law, for which the perpetrator should be executed. To the more religious members of the right Rabin was not only a traitor but an an apostate, a rebel against God .

There was personal hatred too. With his unabashed secularism, common among early Zionists, Rabin contested the religious right’s self-conception as the heir to pre-state Zionist pioneers. The country’s first Jewish leader born in Palestine, Rabin was “the very embodiment of Israeliness,” as Ephron describes him. The dismissal of the religious right as “not a settlement movement” but “an unruly bunch” embracing “extremist chauvinism” by a leader of the state’s founding generation challenged the very basis of its claim to authority .

When Rabin was shot by a young man identified with the religious right, the reasonable assumption was that it would pay a heavy price. Netanyahu expected Likud and its allies on the right to “be decimated if elections are called soon.” The settlers were in a state of panic. With public opinion overwhelmingly against them, it seemed that Rabin’s Labor government would encounter no obstacles to reelection and the implementation of its peace policy .

Since then, however, Netanyahu has served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999 and again from 2009 to the present, leading the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, one dominated by the settlers and their supporters. The political interests identified with the nation’s most abhorred crime dominate its contemporary politics .

Ephron and Itamar Rabinovich both regard Rabin’s death as a critical moment in Israel’s history. More than twenty years later, there remains a baffling scarcity of literature about it, which makes their books all the more important. Rabinovich’s biography offers a clear-headed exposition of Rabin’s public career. His account of the challenges and decisions Rabin grappled with throughout the peace process is informed by his personal involvement as Israel’s ambassador to the United States and chief negotiator with Syria from 1993 to 1996, but he remains largely impartial. His verdict on the assassination’s aftermath is sober: he faults the center and the left for allowing “the radical right and the settlers and their allies in Israel to remain entrenched, regroup, and get a stranglehold on the country’s politics .”

Ephron’s book is a detailed, extensively researched account of the assassination and the events leading up to it. He presents the parallel stories of the assassin and his target: the national leader struggling to reach an agreement in the face of mounting terrorist attacks and intensifying public opposition, and the religious zealot who organized some of this opposition but quickly became disenchanted with democratic tactics. His turn to violence “set off a chain reaction that would shift the power in Israel from the pragmatists to the ideologues,” Ephron writes. The question that neither he nor Rabinovich takes up is how this happened. Why did Israel’s liberals abandon the political fight precisely at the moment when its urgency was more apparent than ever ?

A dedicated soldier, Rabin was an unlikely leader of a peace movement. In 1948, as the twenty-six-year-old commander of the legendary Harel brigade, which fought in some of the fiercest battles of the Arab-Israeli war, including the battle for Jerusalem, Rabin was instrumental in the forced expulsion of Arabs from Lydda and Ramle. In 1967, as chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), he was responsible for its most important victories in the Six-Day War, capturing the West Bank from Jordan, the Gaza Strip and Sinai from Egypt, and the Golan Heights from Syria. After the war he served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States, and in 1974 became prime minister. Two years later, when an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris was hijacked and rerouted to Entebbe in Uganda, Rabin chose not to negotiate for the lives of the 105 hostages. Instead, he ordered a rescue mission that would become one of the most renowned commando operations in Israel’s history .

When the first intifada erupted in December 1987, Rabin, then minister of defense, attempted to crush it. It was rumored that he instructed Israeli troops to “break the bones” of Palestinian demonstrators, a rumor he consistently denied, though without convincing many people. Whether he gave this order or not, his approach was undeniably militant, and he made the same mistake that Israeli governments have repeatedly made: treating Palestinian resistance as a security issue rather than a political one and seeking to suppress it without addressing Palestinian grievances .

But by the middle of 1988, Rabin realized that force alone was futile and that a political settlement with the Palestinians was needed. Some believed that he could no longer remain blind to the similarities between the Palestinian struggle and the Jewish struggle for independence to which he had dedicated himself decades earlier. The transformation was evident when Rabin, known as Israel’s “Mr. Security,” declared, “Peace is made with enemies!” The hard-line Likud prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, strongly opposed his position. In 1992 Rabin ran against Shamir on a peace platform and defeated him .

Once in office, Rabin gave priority to the peace process. “He felt that he had not been given a rare second chance just to spend several more years sitting in the prime minister’s chair and that changing Israel’s relationship with its Arab environment would be his most effective way of having an impact,” Rabinovich writes. Rabin was initially inclined to pursue negotiations with the Syrians first, appointing Rabinovich to lead the talks. While he offers few new revelations, his personal account provides a powerful confirmation of Rabin’s intentions. “It was clear from the start that Rabin intended to make meaningful headway in the peace process,” he writes. By August 1993, as he realized that a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights was essential for an agreement with Syria, Rabin authorized US Secretary of State Warren Christopher to propose it as part of a comprehensive peace plan. “I knew,” Rabinovich recalls, “Rabin had just given Christopher the keys to an Israeli–Syrian peace deal.” When Syrian president Hafez al-Assad declined his terms, Rabin decided to pursue agreements with the Palestinian Liberation Organization and with Jordan .

Rabin signed a peace treaty with Jordan’s King Hussein in October 1994, but he never reached a final agreement with Arafat, and it’s tempting to wonder: Would his maximum offer have met the minimum Palestinian demand? And if it had, would Rabin have managed to keep his coalition together and to secure public support despite the surge in Palestinian terrorism, which for many Israelis became a daily reality during the peace process? Rabinovich navigates the counterfactual with caution :

The assumption that Rabin would have won the 1996 elections is quite realistic, but that he would have come to an agreement with Arafat is less so…. Yet it is indeed likely that in the absence of a final status agreement Rabin would have nonetheless been able to settle on a less ambitious goal and to avoid a head-on collision on the scale of the Second Intifada .

The tragedy of Rabin’s murder was compounded by the fact that his legacy was left in the hands of his rivals—his foreign minister, Shimon Peres, and Netanyahu. Netanyahu was determined to disrupt the Oslo process. Peres, Rabin’s perennial nemesis in his own Labor Party, became acting prime minister after the assassination, but as a result of his vanity and envy of Rabin—whose popularity surged after his death—he sabotaged his own position. Peres decided not to hold elections immediately despite a decisive lead in the polls; when they were held a year later, he refrained from any mention of Rabin’s murder during the campaign, then with a string of strategic blunders he unwittingly helped Netanyahu distance himself from the assassination and restore his public image. In his 1979 memoir, Rabin had called Peres “an indefatigable subverter,” a label that stuck for many years. Peres’s gravest subversion of Rabin might well have been the rehabilitation of those who had inspired his assassin .

There were political mistakes and personal failings, and there was also the incessant bloodletting—Palestinian terror attacks in Israel and ill-conceived Israeli military operations in Gaza and Lebanon. These events, recounted in both books, help to explain Netanyahu’s victory, but the implosion of the Israeli center-left sprang from something deeper, which is crucial to understanding the lasting significance of Rabin’s assassination .

On February 25, 1994, a settler in an IDF uniform walked into Hebron’s Cave of Patriarchs, loaded his military-issued automatic rifle, and opened fire on hundreds of Muslims kneeling in prayer. Twenty-nine were killed and more than a hundred were injured. The gunman, Baruch Goldstein, an American-born physician, had been initiated into extremism in New York’s Jewish Defense League and immigrated to Israel in 1983. He lived in Kiryat Arba, an extremist settlement on the edge of Hebron. Goldstein, who was beaten to death during the shooting, was given a hero’s funeral in the settlement and was declared “holy” and “pure of heart” by its rabbis .

Appalled by the massacre and the celebration of its perpetrator, Rabin decided to evacuate some of the settlers from Hebron. Many in the security establishment and the government supported his decision, but then he changed his mind: the settlers had quickly mobilized and were threatening to fight the evacuation. Though their resistance could have easily been crushed, their readiness to use force gave rise to a cynical imperative: Rabin had to back down to avert milhemet ahim, a Hebrew term for civil war whose literal meaning invokes a powerful taboo, “war between brothers .”

This was not Rabin’s first encounter with the settlers. Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), the messianic movement that led the establishment of settlements in the territories captured in 1967, was formed in 1974. A few months earlier, Israel had suffered almost 10,000 casualties in the Yom Kippur War, which took it by surprise. Having been in power since the state’s founding, the Labor Party had grown stale for many Israelis; it was tainted by corruption, and with the devastation of the war its promise of security was compromised. The religious nationalists of Gush Emunim, on the other hand, were full of passionate intensity.

In December 1975, shortly after Rabin was chosen to replace Labor’s discredited prime minister, Golda Meir, hundreds of religious enthusiasts organized by Gush Emunim squatted in an old train station in Sebastia, near Nablus, in an attempt to force the government to establish a settlement in the heart of the West Bank. Rabin, who was a security realist but never a territorial expansionist, wanted to evict them, but the settlers were determined to stay. The threat of fraternal war, and the support of some in the government, led Rabin, in a compromise, to authorize a settlement called Kdumim.

In his memoir, Rabin disparaged the “professional fence-sitters who…smiled in every direction, proclaiming support for the government while conducting love-affairs with the outlaws of Gush Emunim.”[2] He was referring primarily to Peres, the settlers’ chief benefactor in the government. Unlike Peres, Rabin never flirted with the settlers. He considered Gush Emunim toxic to Israeli democracy and was openly hostile toward the settlers’ messianic visions. But he was also reluctant to confront them. Rabinovich makes no apologies for Rabin:

The Sebastia affair was a turning point in several respects. It was a defining event in the history of Gush Emunim and the settlers’ movement, leading to additional settlements in Samaria. It also exposed the weakness of Rabin and his government. It was a moment that called for a show of political courage and a determination that the Rabin of 1975 was still lacking.

Amos Oz put it more poignantly in 1989: “In the abandoned train station in Sebastia this cult brought Yitzhak Rabin to his knees, where he remained ever since. What is much worse, in Sebastia, the state of Israel too was brought to its knees, and it too has not yet managed to rise back up.”

The justice minister at the time, Haim Zadok, called the Sebastia affair “the Altalena of 1975.” The Altalena was a cargo ship carrying weapons for the right-wing pre-state underground organization Irgun. When the State of Israel was formed in 1948, David Ben-Gurion insisted that all military factions be subsumed under the IDF and that all weapons on board the Altalena be surrendered. Irgun’s leader, Menachem Begin, refused, and Ben-Gurion ordered his forces in Tel Aviv—one of the officers there was Rabin—to open fire on the ship. Sixteen Irgun members and three IDF soldiers died, and the weapons were seized. This was an instance in which the threat of fraternal war did not deter confrontation.

Reflecting on his career, Zadok commented in 2001, “Sebastia was our Altalena, but we did not have a Ben-Gurion.” Confronted with mounting Palestinian terrorism, Rabin once said that Arafat needed his own Altalena moment. Yet Rabin himself, both in Sebastia and following the Hebron massacre, had failed to stand up to extremists on his own side. His assassination was an Altalena moment for his successors, and it too was not seized.

After Rabin’s death, the opponents of the peace accord quickly distanced themselves from the assassin and pleaded for national unity. Many on the left wanted to believe that trauma had induced contrition. But the imperative of unity was invoked mainly to stifle reaction and criticism: this meant that the right could not be held accountable for inciting violence against the government, that its leaders were not answerable for their tactics, and that the religious authorities who sanctioned the assassination would not be prosecuted. Some shamelessly argued that the peace process had aggravated the country’s divisions, as if blaming Rabin for his own death. Above all, the call to unity demanded that the assassination not be “politicized,” which meant that the assassin’s openly political cause—derailing the peace agreement—could not be mentioned.

Paralyzed by the threat of fraternal war and unable to resist the right’s unity offensive, liberal Israelis surrendered the ability to define one of the nation’s most fateful events. Public rage evolved quickly into a sentimental carnival of grief. Melancholy ballads sung over candles became the trademark of Rabin’s younger mourners, who became known as “the candle youth.” Stripped of causes and consequences, his assassination and legacy were effectively purged of their political significance; the extremists who imposed their will by threat of force were no longer seen as the offenders, while those who criticized them and promoted “divisive” peace policies were; attackers became victims. The issue was no longer peace versus settlements, but keeping Israelis united. Many who had supported peace with the Palestinians struggled now to “connect” with religious nationalists.

The demand for unity was one-sided and short-lived. As the election approached, Netanyahu’s campaign adopted the unmistakably racist slogan “Netanyahu is good for the Jews,” and in May 1996 he narrowly defeated Peres and became prime minister. As soon as he was in power, Netanyahu abandoned pleas for unity. To this day, his government promotes racism, nativism, and xenophobia, increasingly undermines the free press, discredits the courts, infuses public education with nationalist indoctrination, persecutes human rights organizations, and vilifies the opposition. In the 2019 election campaign he aligned himself with a band of Jewish supremacists once outlawed for racism and shunned by all of his predecessors. Many of them venerate Baruch Goldstein and tacitly support Yigal Amir’s actions.

Rabin’s assassination was the starkest expression yet of the right’s diktat to the Israeli mainstream: peace with your neighbors means war with your brothers. For more than two decades, Israeli advocates for peace and democracy have been paralyzed by this equation. The result is an asymmetrical culture war, with one side fighting tooth and nail while the other side—confused and intimidated—observes and repines. The taboo of fraternal war, which is rooted deep in the foundations of the Jewish state, has become the source of its undoing.

The new centrist party, Blue and White, performed impressively in both of the recent elections, winning the same number of seats as Netanyahu’s Likud party (35 in April and 32 in September). But it refrains from taking a position on Israel’s most pressing issues. Though by all accounts a liberal and a dove, its leader, former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, would not commit to a two-state solution during the campaign or even concede that the occupation exists, but, submitting to the right’s bigotry, announced that he would not include Arab parties in his coalition. Leading members of his party reiterated this position in August. If he had been elected and formed a coalition, Gantz’s hastily assembled hodgepodge party would never have done anything that might provoke the right’s wrath. Israel’s liberals are still waiting for leaders who are neither intimidated by the right’s bullying nor befuddled by its duplicitous cries for unity.

—October 9, 2019

[1] Avner Inbar, “Netanyahu Keeps Winning Because His Opponents Lack a Vision for Israel,” World Politics Review, May 3, 2019. [2] My translation from Rabin’s memoir, Pinḳas Sherut (Tel Aviv: Sifriat Maạriv, 1979), p. 486.

Biographie Jitzhak Rabins

Die Ermordung Jitzhak Rabins jährt sich mittlerweile zum fünfundzwanzigsten Mal. Mit der Zeit wird der damalige Ministerpräsident zunehmend verklärt, während er unter manchen Israelis immer noch verhasst ist. Ein nüchterner Blick auf Rabins Wirken und seine Zeit tut auch heute not. Es war die Epoche nach dem Zusammenbruch der Sowjetunion, was auch für Israel wirkmächtige Folgen hatte: Das syrische Regime erhielt keine Rüstungshilfen mehr aus Moskau, der Einfluss sowjetischer Militärberater in Saddam Husseins Irak nahm ab, während Amerika den Golfkrieg gewann und Bagdad erheblich schwächte. Aus dem postsowjetischen Raum wanderten Hunderttausende oft gut ausgebildete Juden nach Israel ein. Rabin erkannte die strategische Chance: Anstatt wie bisher massive Staatsmittel für die Siedlungen und ihren Schutz in den besetzten palästinensischen Gebieten aufzuwenden, wollte er mit dem Geld lieber mit der Einwanderungswelle fertig werden. Und er wollte es lieber in den Aufbau eines High-tech-Sektors in Israel stecken, dem die russischen Ingenieure gelegen kamen, als in die militärische Herrschaft über eine andere Nation.

Es waren also nicht nur die Erfahrungen aus der von ihm als Verteidigungsminister brutal niedergeschlagenen ersten Intifada, sondern auch diese strategischen Erwägungen, die Rabin dazu brachten, Frieden mit den Palästinensern zu suchen. Dass der dafür von einem jüdischen Extremisten ermordete israelische Ministerpräsident heute manchmal als menschliche Friedenstaube verklärt wird, brachte einst sogar Henry Kissinger in Wallung: „Jitzhak war doch kein Blumenkind.“ Das war Rabin nicht, aber als historische Figur prägt er Israels Geschichte, weil er zeigte, was möglich war und wäre.

Mit Itamar Rabinovich hat ein an den Verhandlungen beteiligter Weggefährte eine lesenswerte und präzise Biographie vorgelegt, die Rabins Leben in einen realistischen Kontext bettet und einen nüchternen Mann beschreibt. Jetzt liegt sie auch auf Deutsch vor. Rabinovich diente Rabin als Botschafter in Washington und verhandelte mit Syrien über einen Frieden – eine Stoßrichtung, der Rabin zunächst größere Chancen beimaß als einer Übereinkunft mit der Palästinensischen Befreiungsorganisation.

Rabinovich, später Professor für Nahostgeschichte in Tel Aviv, beschreibt Rabin als einen Politiker der Mitte, dem es zuallererst um Israels Sicherheit ging, die für ihn „untrennbar verknüpft mit dem Streben nach Frieden“ gewesen sei. Rabin war zu schmerzhaften Zugeständnissen an die Araber bereit, auch um die Staatswerdung Israels zu vollenden, internationale Legitimität zu erlangen und Grenzen abzustecken, was bis heute nicht endgültig passiert ist. All dies sei aus den Augen eines Militärs geschehen, der Rabin lange war, der sich bis zum Schluss im Tel Aviver Militärhauptquartier lieber aufhielt als im Ministerpräsidentenbüro in Jerusalem. Im Umgang mit Zivilisten sei Rabin unbeholfen gewesen, unter Soldaten habe er sich wohler gefühlt.

Rabin war ein herausragender Vertreter der alten Elite Israels, deren Einfluss heute langsam schwindet. Rabinovich zeichnet das Bild des im Lande geborenen Israelis, der in einfachen Verhältnissen aufwuchs, in der zionistischen Arbeiterbewegung sozialisiert wurde und zeit seines Lebens ausgewiesen säkular blieb. Den Kampf um die Unabhängigkeit 1948, die Rabin als Anführer der paramilitärischen Palmach erlebte, nennt er „das prägendste Erlebnis in Rabins Leben“. Am Aufbau der Streitkräfte hatte Rabin entscheidenden Anteil und setzte sich für Israels Nuklearprogramm ein, 1964 wurde er Generalstabschef. Rabins Verständnis von nationaler Sicherheit sei im Kern defensiv gewesen. Er glaubte an Abschreckung, nicht an präventive Militäreinsätze. Im Kriegsfall jedoch gelte es, die Gefechte rasch auf das Gebiet des Gegners zu tragen.

Als Ägypten 1967 jedoch seine Truppen auf dem Sinai konzentrierte, die Straße von Tiran im Roten Meer für israelische Schiffe schloss und Israel diplomatisch weitgehend allein dastand, warb Rabin für einen präventiven Krieg, im Gegensatz zum zögerlicheren damaligen Ministerpräsidenten Levi Eschkol. Und so spielte ausgerechnet Rabin eine bedeutende Rolle bei der Eroberung des palästinensischen Westjordanlandes. Im Streit über dieses Thema sollte er Jahrzehnte später ermordet werden.

„Aus dem Rückblick erscheint der Triumph als sehr zweifelhafter Segen“, schreibt Rabinovich. Für Rabin galten die im Krieg eroberten Gebiete als Faustpfand für einen späteren Friedensvertrag. Doch der blieb aus, die Arabische Liga verweigerte sich damals allen Verhandlungen. Und die eroberten Gebiete erwiesen sich zunehmend als Last. Die folgende „messianische Welle“ der Siedlerbewegung in den besetzten Gebieten führte Rabin schon in den Siebzigern zum Ausspruch, „die Bibel ist nicht das Grundbuchamt des Nahen Ostens“. Gleichwohl warnt Rabinovich davor, darin schon einen Vorboten von Oslo sehen zu wollen, selbst wenn Rabins Überzeugungen früh klar waren. Die Diplomatie bot Rabin den Einstieg in die Politik, als Botschafter in Washington hatte er das damals noch oft komplizierte Verhältnis mit Amerika zu bewältigen. Gegen seinen Rivalen Schimon Peres setzte er sich als Vorsitzender der Arbeitspartei durch und begann 1974 seine erste kurze, nicht eben von Erfolg gekrönte Amtszeit als Ministerpräsident. Die öffentliche Rede war nicht seine Sache. Was sich erst in den neunziger Jahren änderte, als Rabin für seine Vision kämpfte.

Über diesen zeitlichen Abschnitt zu lesen ist nicht zuletzt durch die Nähe des Autors zum Forschungsgegenstand ein Gewinn, da er viele persönliche Einblicke in die damalige Diplomatie gewährt. Eine Beschreibung der intellektuellen Prägung und Persönlichkeit des zurückhaltenden, doch dann und wann zu Wutausbrüchen neigenden Rabins kommt indes zuweilen etwas kurz. Und doch gelingt es Rabinovich, hagiographische Fallstricke zu vermeiden, trotzdem der höchste Respekt des Autors vor Rabin und dessen Politik stets spürbar bleibt.

Rabin sei kein charismatischer Anführer gewesen, doch ein Staatsmann durch seine Fähigkeit, eine Vision zu entwickeln und zu verfolgen. Sein militärischer Hintergrund verschaffte Rabin im eigenen Land Glaubwürdigkeit und Autorität. Der Friedensvertrag mit Jordanien traf auf Begeisterung in Israel und weckte Hoffnung auf mehr. Rabin war dabei nicht bereit, auf alles zu verzichten, sprach nie von einem Staat Palästina: Israel sollte in den meisten Teilen Jerusalems bleiben, außerdem im Jordantal, nicht jedoch im nördlichen Westjordanland.

Dass der palästinensisch-islamistische Terror großen Anteil am Scheitern der Friedensbemühungen hatte, lässt Rabinovich nicht aus. Und doch verwendet er viele Zeilen auch auf die Hetze und den Hass, der Rabin von Seiten der jüdischen Siedlerbewegung und nicht zuletzt auch des Likud entgegengebracht worden war. Dessen junger Parteivorsitzender damals hieß Benjamin Netanjahu, der sich zu der Zeit von Mordaufrufen und Hetze nicht offen distanzierte und diese laut Rabinovich salonfähig machte. Er verschleiert seine große persönliche Enttäuschung darüber nicht.

Rabin habe eine Politik gemacht, damit Israel nicht für immer mit dem Schwert leben müsse, schreibt Rabinovich. Netanjahu dagegen erklärt: „Wir werden für immer mit dem Schwert leben.“ Das, was Rabin stets befürchtete, trat nach seiner Ermordung ein. Der Likud gewann die Wahl, verband sich später mit der Ultraorthodoxie, der radikalen Rechten und der Siedlerbewegung. Dass dies so kommen konnte, sei nicht zwangsläufig gewesen. Es lag auch am Versäumnis der gemäßigten und linken politischen Eliten, schreibt Rabinovich, die Israel nach dem Mord an Rabin weder einer echten Gewissensprüfung noch einer gesellschaftlichen Diskussion unterzogen und eine umfassende gerichtliche Aufarbeitung versäumten. Auch dieses Versäumnis der alten Elite, in deren Mitte Rabin einst geboren wurde, „erlaubte es den radikalen Rechten und den Siedlern und ihren Verbündeten, immer festere Wurzeln zu schlagen, sich dabei neu zu formieren und schließlich die kurz- und langfristige Politik des Landes in den Würgegriff zu nehmen“. Auch ohne politischen Kommentar hat Rabinovich ein wertvolles Buch vorgelegt.

Handschlag für ein wenig Hoffnung

Eine neue Biografie beschreibt Yitzhak Rabin als einen Politiker, für den ein Friede mit den Palästinensern nicht bloss eine Vision war. Seit seiner Ermordung haben sich die Fronten verhärtet.

Alexandra Föderl-Schmid, 07.03.2020

Vieles von dem, was Israel in diesen Tagen beschäftigt, war schon für Yitzhak Rabin ein zentrales Thema: die Siedler und die Schaffung eines palästinensischen Staates. Aber zu Lebzeiten Rabins war das, was im Unter­titel der Biografie über Israels früheren Ministerpräsidenten angekündigt wird, tatsächlich eine Option: «als Frieden noch möglich schien ».

Nach der Ermordung des Politikers Rabin durch den israelischen Extremisten Jigal Amir am 4. November 1995 gewann Benjamin Netanyahu die darauf­folgende Wahl und wurde zum ersten Mal Regierungschef – ein Amt, das der Politiker des rechtsnationalen Likud mit Unter­brechungen inzwischen zwölf ­Jahre lang innehat. Nach der Ermordung Rabins und der Wahl Netanyahus «begann Israel, sich mit grossen Schritten von Rabins Weg zu entfernen», schreibt der Biograf Itamar Rabinovich .

Anekdoten und Analysen

Der Autor war unter Rabin israelischer Botschafter in Washington und an Friedensverhandlungen mit Syrien beteiligt, die ­Israel und die USA damals als vielversprechender einschätzten als den parallel begonnenen ­Oslo-Friedensprozess, der 1993 zu einem aufsehenerregenden Abkommen, aber nie zu einem Abschluss führte .

Diese persönliche Beteiligung des Autors an Verhandlungen ermöglicht interessante Einblicke. Rabinovich, der Präsident der Universität Tel Aviv war, Nahostgeschichte lehrte und nun das renommierte Israel Institute ­leitet, gelingt es, Anekdoten aus Rabins Leben mit nüchternen Analysen eines Wissenschaftlers zu vereinen .

Er verklärt Rabin nicht, sondern beschreibt anschaulich dessen Wandlung vom radikalen Untergrundkämpfer in Palästina zum Soldaten und schliesslich vom Diplomaten zum Politiker. Der Autor zeichnet nicht nur ein sympathisches Bild und schildert die negativen Seiten seiner ­Persönlichkeit, wie Rabins jähzornige Ausfälle und seine über Jahrzehnte sehr persönlich ausgetragenen Kämpfe mit Shimon Peres, seinem Rivalen in der Arbeitspartei.

«Eine der grössten Bedrohungen für den Staat Israel »

«Das prägendste Erlebnis in ­Rabins Leben» war nach Einschätzung seines Biografen der Kampf um die Unabhängigkeit des 1948 ausgerufenen Staates Israel, die Rabin als Anführer der paramilitärischen Palmach erlebte. ­Danach war Rabin, trotz Differenzen mit Staatsgründer David Ben-Gurion, am Aufbau der ­Armee beteiligt. 1967 war ­Rabin als Generalstabschef der Armee für einen präventiven Krieg und setzte sich gegen den zögerlichen Ministerpräsidenten Levi Eshkol durch .

Im Sechstagekrieg eroberte Israel unter anderem die Golanhöhen, das Westjordanland und Ostjerusalem – Gebiete, die noch heute im Mittelpunkt der Auseinandersetzungen stehen. «Aus dem Rückblick erscheint der Triumph als sehr zweifelhafter Segen», schreibt Rabinovich .

Die israelischen Siedler, die damals begannen, sich im ­besetzten Westjordanland festzusetzen, bezeichnete Rabin 1976 als «eine der grössten Bedrohungen für den Staat Israel. Das ist keine Siedlerbewegung, das ist ein Krebsgeschwür im sozialen und demokratischen Gewebe ­Israels, eine Gruppierung, die das Gesetz in die eigenen Hände nimmt.» Diese Einschätzung ­erwies sich als richtig, die Siedlerbewegung errichtete illegal Aussenposten im besetzten Westjordanland, die aber nach und nach legalisiert wurden .

«Er war kein Blumenkind »

Inzwischen leben rund 500'000 Israelis in 120 Siedlungen und zwei Millionen Palästinenser im Westjordanland. Es dauerte bis in die 90er-Jahre, ehe Rabin die PLO und damit Yassir Arafat ­offiziell als Gesprächspartner ­anerkannte. Als Verteidigungsminister liess er den 1987 ausgebrochenen Aufstand der Palästinenser, die erste Intifada, brutal niederschlagen. Der frühere amerikanische Aussenminister Henry Kissinger beschrieb Rabin nüchtern: «Yitzhak war kein Blumenkind ».

Aber schliesslich reifte in Rabin die Einsicht, dass Israel aus strategischen Gründen Frieden mit den Palästinensern suchen müsse. Ihm sei es immer um Israels Sicherheitsinteressen gegangen, schreibt sein Biograf, diese ­seien «untrennbar verknüpft mit dem Streben nach Frieden». Rabin war zu schmerzhaften Zugeständnissen an die Araber bereit, auch um internationale Legitimität zu erlangen und die Staatsgrenzen Israels abzustecken, was bis heute nicht endgültig geschehen ist. Er führte auch 1994 den Friedensvertrag mit Jordanien herbei. Rabinovich weist darauf hin, dass in dessen erster Amtszeit als Ministerpräsident die Vorarbeiten für den 1979 unter Menachem Begin mit Ägypten abgeschlossenen ­Friedensvertrag geleistet worden seien .

Sein militärischer Hintergrund verschaffte Rabin in Israel Glaubwürdigkeit und Autorität. Er war kein charismatischer Anführer, aber er hat sich zum Staatsmann entwickelt durch seine Fähigkeit, eine Vision zu entwerfen und zu verfolgen .

Der Biograf gibt Netanyahu ­indirekt eine Mitschuld am Tod Rabins. Er habe sich von Mordaufrufen und Hetze nicht offen distanziert und diese salonfähig gemacht. Den Unterschied zwischen Rabin und Netanyahu ­beschreibt Rabinovich so: Rabin habe eine Politik gemacht, damit Israel nicht für immer mit dem Schwert leben müsse. ­Netanyahu dagegen habe am 20. Jahrestag der Ermordung Rabins erklärt: «Wir werden für immer mit dem Schwert leben.» Das Buch ist so ein Schlüssel zum besseren Verständnis von Israels Politik.

Kultur, Geschichte und Politik Israels

Israel-Studien sind eine noch junge Forschungsdisziplin an deutschen Hochschulen. Der Göttinger Wallstein Verlag widmet ihr eine eigene Buchreihe, in der bislang vier Bände erschienen sind.

Dr. Johannes Platz, DIG MAGAZIN Nr. 1 2020/5780, pp. 48-49.


Methodisch auf etwas eingefahreneren Wegen bewegt sich die politische Biographie Jitzchak Rabins von Itamar Rabinovich, die jedoch einer kommenden Einzelrezension vorbehalten ist. Insgesamt liefern die ersten Werke der Reihe Israel-Studien einen guten Einblick in rezente Forschungen, wecken Interesse auf die Fortsetzung der Reihe und regen zur Diskussion – vielleicht auch in unseren Arbeitsgemeinschaften – an.

Der Mann, der Falke und Taube war

Er war früher Palmach-Kämpfer und schüttelte später die Hand Arafats: Jitzchak Rabins Lebensweg erscheint zunächst als widersprüchlich. Eine neue Biographie zeichnet die Entwicklung des 1995 ermordeten Premiers nach. Eine Rezension von Sandro Serafin

„Naiv“ sei er und möglicherweise „einer Gehirnwäsche unterzogen“, soll Israels legendäre Premierministerin Golda Meir Anfang der 70er Jahre gegen ihren damaligen Botschafter in Washington gewettert haben. Der setzte sich für Kompromissbereitschaft bezüglich eines Zwischenabkommens mit Ägypten ein. Sein Name: Jitzchak Rabin .

Geschildert wird die Anekdote in der Rabin-Biographie von Itamar Rabinovich, die in diesem Jahr auch auf Deutsch erschienen ist. Rabinovich war bei den Friedensinitiativen der 90er Jahre Chefunterhändler Rabins für Syrien .

Mit seinem Buch liefert er auch Antworten auf ebenjene Frage, die vielleicht sogar schon Anfang der 70er Jahre – noch weit weg vom Oslo-Friedensprozess – in Meirs Aussagen mitschwang: Wie wurde aus dem einstigen Palmach-Kämpfer, der im Sechs-Tage-Krieg als Armeechef maßgeblich dazu beitrug, dass sich das israelisch kontrollierte Territorium verdreifachte, ein Mann, der von Teilen der Linken als Friedenstaube, von vielen Rechten als Attentäter gegen israelische Sicherheitsinteressen gesehen wird ?

Rabins Entwicklung war konsequent

Rabinovich arbeitet Rabins Weg eng angelehnt an die Geschichte des jüdischen Staates heraus. Er lässt den zurückhaltenden Mann in gutem Licht erscheinen, versucht ihn aber zugleich zu entideologisieren. Dabei zeichnet er das Bild eines Politikers, für den das Streben nach Frieden mit dem nach Sicherheit „untrennbar verknüpft“ war. Keine 180-Grad-Wende also, sondern eine konsequente Entwicklung vom Soldaten hin zum Staatsmann. Die Feststellung des Autors, Rabin sei als Politiker „eine Taube, in militärischer Hinsicht aber ein Falke“ gewesen, erscheint in dieser Darstellung nicht mehr als Widerspruch .

Zugleich entsteht das Bild eines steinigen und mühevollen Weges. Die erste Amtszeit Rabins als Premier erscheint als schwach und wenig mutig. An ihrem Ende stand „der erste reale Machtwechsel in der israelischen Politik“, die Regierungsübernahme durch Menachem Begin und seinen Likud. Begin schloss schließlich den Frieden mit Ägypten, den Rabin vorbereitet hatte. Es ist einer jener Aspekte, die Rabin im Nachhinein auch als tragische Figur erscheinen lassen .

Viel schlimmer ist aber natürlich die Ermordung Rabins durch einen jüdischen Rechtsextremisten 1995. Die ganze Tragik dessen erschließt sich erst in einer Gesamtschau auf Rabins Leben, wie sie diese Biographie liefert. Der Autor fasst es so zusammen: „In einer seltsamen Wendung der Geschichte war ausgerechnet Jitzchak Rabin, der Architekt des großen militärischen Sieges von 1967 […], dazu berufen, mit diesem zweifelhaften Segen umzugehen und schließlich dafür mit seinem Leben zu bezahlen .“

Itamar Rabinovich: „Jitzchak Rabin. Als Frieden noch möglich schien. Eine Biographie“, Wallstein, 307 Seiten, 24,90 Euro, ISBN: 978-3-8353-3452-6

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